5/28/20: On Pictures

For some reason I feel like it’s always the 28th when I write these posts. The specific month hardly matters; it’s like each 28th follows the previous one rather than the actual 27th that come before, the way that John Crowley posits Christmases do.

I don’t like to have my picture taken. I never have, although the aversion didn’t manifest into any kind of rigorous praxis until I was in high school. That’s when I began studiously to avoid having my picture taken, except for in a few handfuls of specific circumstances. I didn’t even have any senior pictures taken. And that same refusal I also transmuted into a refusal to take pictures, in general, of anything: of places I visited, things I did.

It doesn’t come from a queasiness about how I look. I don’t really know how I look. Maybe I’m ugly. Maybe I’m so uniquely ugly that the ugliness wraps around again and becomes a kind of attractiveness in itself. People I’ve been attracted to’ve found me attractive, and that’s enough for me. I try not to think about it more than that and mostly succeed.

But I don’t like the way I look in pictures. There’s always this burden of incorrectness in me in them. I’m never in a normal pose. The light always catches me bad. Pictures bring out the worse in my face and body. In particular I dislike the goofy looseness of my smile – something I eventually realized I inherited directly from my dad; in his otherwise very different face it looks endearing, maybe roguish and charming even; but it looks inadequate in my own.

But, whether it started out entirely from vanity (and I think it did), the aversion to photography has developed other facets. I think pictures, of anything, fundamentally lie. Whatever they’re of, it isn’t the thing itself, not as I experienced it, but some approximation of that person, place, or thing from a distance and through a medium that are not mine and not me, and thus have nothing to do with me and my experience, even if I was the one taking it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that fact, but it bothers me. And it might especially bother me in terms of pictures I like. Because in their falsity pictures invite idealization. They are such perfect receptacles for fantasies, and like all fantasies they distance us from reality, making us hate it for not being as good and simple as the things we make inside our heads.

I had, briefly, a bad habit lately. I was using Google Maps to take digital walks around obscure Tokyo suburbs, little snoozy, gently run-down neighborhoods outside of the city itself.

Not a cataclysmic vice, but an empty one. It only made me hungrier for real things. Simply put, what I was engaging with, what I was seeing, was not that actual place, but a dream of a place, an ideal. And ideals are so much less, and so much better, than reality, and that’s a poisonous set of characteristics. It creates distance. Every time I engage with a fantasy of a place I’m removing myself further from the reality of that place.

This applies to pictures of people too. We’ve all seen a picture of somebody, and then later met them, and been shocked at how different they are in reality; I don’t mean to say they look better or worse, just markedly different. Can you look at a picture, of anybody, even somebody dead or that you’ll never meet, and not immediately start ascribing a personality, a story to them?

But I understand for lots of people these avenues in to fantasies are not the point of pictures, and certainly not the point of personal photos. They’re artifacts of  remembrance, not the actual memory or impression itself. Seeing a picture you took will generate the truer, internal picture you have stored in your memory, but that isn’t always easy to reach, acting in this case as a kind of Dewey decimal number for the Internal Archivist, so they can pull the pertinent volumes down from the deep stacks.

So maybe I’m losing something, by not taking or having pictures. There are definite clues to a self-caused ruin in my life.  I don’t remember much about who I was or what I did before, say, 2008, when I had an ‘adult’ brain capable of retaining and navigating longer stretches of the past.

My childhood, especially, is nothing more than a handful of memories – sense impressions, really, little snatches of time: riding with my dad to the hospital the day my sister was born; coming home from school sick and laying with my cheek on the carpet, staring at the stubby foot of the ottoman in front of me; the day I fell off my scooter in the garage and knocked the my wind out, lay gasping, calmly considering the panic that was building in my chest as I struggled to reset my breathing. don’t remember birthdays, or most of my teachers, or what my friends looked like, what we did; even more recent things like my room in high school are starting to fade and distort, and when I think of the first house we lived in when we moved to Ohio – the big house, before the divorce – it seems impossible that I ever lived in such a place, with its two-story living room and the wet wooded autumnal acreage in the backyard.

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