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What I love about photography is that it captures a moment never to be reproduced. Photographs are the mosquito in amber of human memory, imprinted with our own projected thoughts and emotions. Snapshots, if they survive long enough, become aesthetic curios. A casual photograph of a street scene in Manhattan taken in 1915 becomes more than a snapshot, but a historical document that captures, with accuracy, what life looked like in that particular place at that particular time.
One of my history professors once told me that the best way to have my work remembered would be to regularly go to the supermarket and photograph the merchandise on the shelves. Print, save, and catalogue them, and wait for time to do the rest. His thinking is that future generations will be thirsty for ideas about how we lived in the past, that the photographer of the present has only a vague concept of how radically a society can change in the short span of a generation or two.
My great grandfather was able to tell me the story of seeing his first automobile as a child and how dazzling it was. He could tell me how, years later as a young man, that the hand-crank engine starters were frustrating as he. He and his wife – my great-grandmother – operated a single-screen silent theater; he ran the projector and she played the piano. I say all of this to point to the last years of his life, with the internet revolutionizing instant electronic mail, cable television that allowed him to watch every Minnesota Vikings football game, and even a wireless headset so he could listen to the game without the noise of the game disrupting everybody else in the house.
Things change faster than they seem. And an old snapshot of a daughter or a girlfriend at cheer-leading practice somehow becomes a nostalgic conversation piece, a document of a by-gone era that makes the viewer think about their experiences in high school, wonder where the people in the photograph are today, or even if they’re still alive. It’s a faded piece of paper that reminds us how little time we have, and how precious these small moments might actually be.
“Today everything exists to end in a photograph.”
— Susan Sontag