In My Head- Thoughts about many and few photographs

I just finished reading “Hold Still,” a memoir by Sally Mann. Sally Mann is a photographer, and was a photographer before photography became a saturated thing. These thoughts from her book intrigued me and have been on my mind…



“At its most accomplished, photographic portraiture approaches the eloquence of oil painting in portraying human character, but when we allow snapshots or mediocre photographic portraits to represent us, we find they not only corrupt memory, they also have a troubling power to distort character and mislead posterity. Catch a person in an awkward moment, in a pose or expression that none of his friends would recognize, and this one mendacious photograph may well outlive all corrective testimony; people will study it for clues to the subject’s character long after the death of the last person who could have told them how untrue it is.

“The power of any one photograph to falsify a person’s character is, of course, diminished by the evidence contained in every other surviving photograph of that person. It would be an interesting exercise to determine if there’s some threshold number of photographs that would guarantee, when studied together so that the signature expressions were revealed and uncharacteristic gestures isolated, a reasonably accurate sense of how a person appeared to those who knew him.”

In another perspective, Sally Mann writes:
“Because of the many pictures I have of my father, he eludes me completely. In my outrageously disloyal memory he does not exist in three dimensions, or with associated smells or timbre of voice. He exists as a series of pictures.

“It’s a picture, a photograph I am thinking of. I don’t have a memory of the man, I have a memory of a photograph. I rush upstairs to the scrapbooks and there he is. I’ve lost any clear idea of what my father really looked like, how he moved, sounded; the him-ness of him. It isn’t death that stole my father from me; it’s the photographs. So that’s where I go to find him, to the deckle edged, yellowing pictures that keep my father, Robert Sylvester Munger II, alive for me.”


If Sally is right, there are two sides to this coin for me. On one side of the coin, there’s a permission to take lots of pictures…to see what that threshold of photos is for us to have a true representation of an individual and what they were like. On the other side of the coin, it’s almost like we need to stop taking pictures. Remove ourselves from viewing life in the viewfinder, and just watch, listen, smell– take it all in with our eyes and let it get burned into our memories.

Pictures are so important. They are a visual historical record. But I think reading this book further confirmed my thoughts with photography. BE in the PRESENT. Take photographs for the FUTURE.

As a photographer, I want to deliver pictures of family history, not just for today, but also for the next generation of that family. In a time and market where photos are so saturated, I want to photograph and give true images. Ones that will bring to the surface the smells, sights, tastes, touches, and textures of the moments- and allow you to re-live them because you were present, as well as a provide a taste of that, if possible, to the next generation viewer.

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