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The family archivist

By April Austin / September 13, 2000



A new mom stood in front of me at the photo store, jingling keys to distract her infant. She paid for three sets of finished prints and bought three more rolls of film.

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It's an easy guess whose little face inspired this flurry of photos.

The urge to capture one's family for posterity is universal. From lavish oil portraits and daguerreotypes to digital-camera images, families want to leave a record.

In the early years of photography, families sat for portraits in front of cumbersome cameras. They marked special occasions - christenings, confirmations, weddings, and funerals - with carefully posed photographs. These images were few, rare, and treasured.

By contrast, the average weekend shooter can go through rolls of film and, if fortunate, come up with a single image worth saving.

The promise of technologies such as camcorders is that they enable us to capture more and more minutiae. But that won't necessarily help us remember the past in a meaningful way.

Native Americans did not want their photographs taken, fearing their souls would be lost. In an era that predates our media-saturated society, how people looked, how they were honored by their families, was a sacred act of individual memory.

I think of this when I'm tempted to buy a camcorder. I wonder, years from now, would images on a screen force me to revise the pictures I've held in mind? Would they change the character of my memories?

Many families find enjoyment in home movies. But to me, a single photograph that distills an essential moment is worth hours of flickering images.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society