Hey everyone! I’m feeling uniquely reflective this week and so I’m committing to writing a thing I had floating around in my head since I last left home in California. I’ve promised that I would be more vulnerable through my brand, but I’m not really about sharing for sharing’s sake. I do however feel like as we progress as documentarians and artists, we are forever turning back to ourselves to try to understand what keeps us clicking. This career chose me and without any formal training I’ve turned my impulse to document everything into a way of living. The more I do this, the more I know myself.
My shooting style is not based in perfect technique or brilliant timing. I say that I “shoot from the heart” because with every actuation, I feel like I’ve opened my heart to whatever is happening in front of me. It’s this overpowering feeling of empathy that I can manage with one tool: a camera. In fact, I was recently invited as a guest to a wedding. I felt that feeling knocking at my heart with every sincere and emotional moment: “this is special… this moment, with these people, may not happen again.” Without my camera, I found myself just, well, y’all… crying. I guess that’s what happens when I can’t hide behind my camera. Wildly happy tears of course! But I learned that there’s a part of my brain that processes special days like these that I just can’t turn off. It felt good to cry. It felt good to dance. It felt good to be a friend for this particular Saturday, instead of the documentarian. Nevertheless, I learned something instinctive about myself that reveals more about my “why” for doing this.
Allow me to change direction for a moment. I recently traveled to California to shoot a wedding for a lovely couple (side-note: pester me until I blog that day because I need to blog that day). We decided to add a few days to our trip to visit my dad and younger siblings who live in the high desert. The past few years have been hard on my dad for reason’s that are personal, but us being able to visit was a pretty big deal. He lives in a house that his father (my Opa) left to him. The house has not changed since my Oma passed in 1989 (I was a year old). My dad has since made very few changes since my Opa passed in 2002. The only aesthetic additions are his drawings, several bad dance and school portraits of me, and the photos I had printed for him from our wedding.
It is very easy to find yourself in the past in this place.
There are shelves and shelves of photo albums. All of which I’ve gone through multiple times and at different stages of my life. I couldn’t believe it when my sister said she had found the key for a previously unexplored cabinet, which had been securing a slide projector and boxes of what had to be hundreds of slides. Doubtful we could get it working, we decided to set up a wrinkled white sheet anyway to give the projector a whirl.
Turns out, the projector was only partially busted. The carousel/image feed mechanism wasn’t working properly. It did however project the images if each slide was loaded in manually. It was time consuming, but the payoff of seeing the image after a sort of clunky transition between slides was worth it. I was absolutely floored to see the beautiful color, dimensionality, and saturation blown up in front of me. There were images I had seen many times in black and white, but were stunned to see in a dreamy sort of reality.
The most impactful photos to see were my Oma and Opa’s wedding photos. Again, I had seen many of the black and whites. It was truly something else to see them in this striking color. I loved seeing Oma’s colorful bouquet, the bridesmaids dresses, and My Opa’s navy suit. Most importantly, I loved seeing how clearly and vividly they were in love. These were the kind of candids, colors, and compositions that I crave in my own work. I was just so particularly smitten to realize that I had been unknowingly influenced by the toning and style of my grandparent’s wedding photographs.
I never knew my Oma. At least, to the degree that my memory would keep her. I was just a baby when she suffered heart failure that is common with individuals who live with Marfan’s syndrome. What I know is from stories told by my father, my Opa, cousins, and her friends who took a particular interest in how I was growing up as a small child. Here’s what I know:
She was a ballerina.
She loved travel.
She was classy, cosmopolitan, loved fashion, modern design, and keeping up with friends.
She insisted on cooking at home and maintaining her garden.
She became a driven and successful real estate agent in the years before her passing.
That, from the accounts of the people who knew her, I take after her in many ways. A comment I’ve always accepted as a major compliment, though I never knew her. I do know though, that we both share a love for how photography can preserve our family. I loved seeing her shots. Her handwriting on the frame to label the day.
She married my Opa while he was stationed in Germany. They had a fast engagement and a sweet courthouse style wedding. It wasn’t long after she was pregnant with my father, and then my uncle. They moved around Europe and then were transferred to Ohio, then Michigan, and then finally San Bernardino County in California. I always wondered if she was happy. If that big leap of faith in marrying a man in the US airforce and moving their small family from Europe to the midwest and then to the high desert was what she wanted.
I feel reassured when I see these photos. These photos that showed how crazy in love they were on their wedding day. These photos that show the boys having fun together. That my Opa was playful as a young dad. That in the many moves, her favorite pieces of decor/furniture followed this family from their first home and then from place to place, in different arrangements… and are still displayed her final home where my dad lives now.
The whole experience of going through these slides helped me understand why my dad is so reluctant to make changes to the home, wanting to keep what they had built. It helped me to understand that my Oma’s instinct to document has been passed on to me and shared with me through these volumes of slides and albums. I come from a line of nostalgic people. Life is ever-changing. Nothing is constant. Photos are the only thing that make what is special still for long enough to revisit it.
The evening was more than novel. It was healing. I want to believe that the choice to take and keep so many photos was to preserve enough joy for later. To jar it up. To keep in the shelves or cabinet for when times may not be so easy.
All I know is that nostalgia can be healthy reminder of the joy and love that came from before today. It is not a place to stay, however. It should motivate you to get back into the present, make some memories, and maybe even lightheartedly capture it all for later.
There are still so many to go through, but here are a few snaps of slide projections I took with my camera or phone. We will be researching the best way to scan these for preservation, but I will say that the projector really was the best way to see these. Highly recommend asking folks in your circle/family if they still have their’s… or invest in your own! These are seriously such a marvelous way to see film in all its glory.
Thank y’all for taking this super personal journey with me. I hope you feel excited to review your own family’s history. Whether it be in color, black and white, or in the tales of your family’s oral history. You never know what from the past will help you reframe what you experience today.
Carrie G. of SLL