Quandary of the digital age: delete or save?
It was a really bad picture. Standing in the brothy light of an indoor pool, holding an unhappy baby on each hip, I wore an expression that attempted at resolute perkiness but came off instead as intestinal distress. My posture was terrible, my daughter desperately needed a tissue, and my niece was looking over my shoulder, offering a clear shot of her ear.
Nevertheless, I felt a ripple of guilt as I pressed the delete button on my camera, as though I were Tommy Lee Jones in "Men in Black," aborting a memory with my fingertip. I went digital less than a year ago, and I just can't get used to that little extermination feature. Every time I use it I have flashbacks of rummaging through shoeboxes of pictures with my sisters, gleefully discovering family members in their most ridiculous poses, laughing as though laughter were a sport.
I recall a picture of me, maybe 13 years old, lying on my bed, examining - for some forgotten reason - my shoe. My mouth and eyelids were both half open, and my head was enlarged by the angle of the camera. It never failed to produce a laughing fit.
Had the picture been taken on a digital camera, it never would have made the cut.
For that matter, at least half the pictures floating around my mother's house - and nearly all the really hilarious ones - would have vanished before they were ever printed.
Not that photographs can't be destroyed after they're created. I suppose one of us could have thrown away these silly, second-rate pictures at any time. But nobody ever did. Once an image has made it to print, and certainly once it has evoked some emotion, be it laughter or something deeper, it becomes a little harder to let it go. I imagine "the shoe" is still jammed in a shoebox somewhere, waiting to be discovered again.
So, too, are a series of pictures starring my mother wearing a signature expression that seems to exist only in photographs. She is getting ready to talk or to say something, perhaps, and she is self-consciously aware of the camera's presence. The result, a manufactured overbite and a Neanderthal jut of the head, is a delicious little piece of her heritage.
"Ugh, I'm making that face again," is my mother's lament. But my mother has a talent for laughing at herself, as does everyone in my family. I can't help wondering if it has something to do with all those goofy photos.
Just the night before the aforementioned "pool" picture was shot, my sister and I had indulged ourselves in a photo-fest, flipping through the albums she'd assembled over the past 10 years - a period in her life I've largely missed. Though I'm sure a few blurry or otherwise lousy photos had been edited out, there were plenty of unflattering poses to keep us laughing just as we had when we were teenagers.
And yet here I stood, erasing a picture that would have surely provided much self-deprecating laughter in the years to come. The more I use my digital camera - and other innovations that have changed the face of picture taking - the more I wonder about my legacy of goofy pictures.
Not only am I far more selective about my pictures than I was in the "film age," I can exercise all sorts of other powers over them. Crop out the chubby thighs. Clean up the noses that didn't get wiped. Zoom in on the best, slice off the worst.
True, all of this makes for better family albums. And true, these losses hardly rate among the larger casualties of progress: family time lost to television, the mangling of grammar by e-mail, the fattening of America by convenience foods. Still, it makes me a little sad to see my family's imperfections so easily erased.
A portrait photographer leaves the photo selection to his customers. A photojournalist, by contrast, never allows the subjects of his photographs to select the poses to be published. If I were to choose which professional should compile the photo albums of my life, I'd choose the journalist. That is why pressing the delete button makes me feel as though I'm exercising a power I've no right to possess.
The most honest photos sometimes make you cringe, but they may also reveal something you didn't know about yourself: bad posture, self-consciousness, even an underlying sadness. But perhaps most important, they're usually good for a hearty belly laugh. And those can be as hard to come by as a good swimsuit photo.