What photos have on words is speed.
Photos can be evocative, epiphanic and emblematic instantly, faster than the printed word.
They suck us in at the speed of sight. The speed of emotion.
Part of this is because we read slowly, averaging around 200 words per minute. The human brain can synthesize 4-6 times that fast, some experts estimate around 2,000 words per minute. So your mind actually has to slow down when you’re reading, which is why reading can make you tired. Schools should teach us to speed read.
Audio books are generally read at 160wpm.
Court reporters and other professional typists can do about 70 wpm.
Handwriting produces about 30 wpm.
On the back of this photo it says June, 1980 in an unfamiliar hand. Taken by Mr. Garber.
Difficult to recall Little Kippers, crooked pigtails, Mr. Garber or his sons who sandwich like white bread.
This photo captures a generically cute and utterly insignificant moment of my life. But it has the power to make me see beyond the present moment, the everydayness which blinds me to the possible. My mother sent it in a random care package with dish scrubbies, a handwritten note and some DrySol, and because its arrival coincided with my Generalized Life Dissatisfaction, I stuck it to the fridge as one would a postcard from some far away place.
I forget what I was like at that age. What I thought, how I acted. My mother remembers – loves to remember – but bias makes her an unreliable witness. Video cameras weren’t big back then. Toddlers didn’t have blogs. It was a less documented time. And so my childhood is an anthology of blurry memories like this one, moments that feel collective and half-real.
Photos are hair triggers for interior dialogue, catalysts for introspection, yardsticks of our evolution. Or, in some cases, stasis.
In the Power family albums, my radiant mother, impish father and sweet sister are apparent. But to me I seem a cipher.
I am you. You are not me yet.
By inevitable comparison, my once mutable identity has developed into something wooden. Like so many adults I’ve gone marking the limits of my intelligence and beauty and capability. The die’s been cast.
Over winter this photo adorned the fridge and later migrated to the bill holder, finally settling on a tower of Esquires which occupy the spare dining room chair. My shy smile, rosy cheeks, vacant eyes – attributes of toddlers everywhere – make me appear both adorable and impenetrable. Putty, possibility, enigma.
I examine myself at three, head like a clean attic and heart like a new car, and some interior fire alarm trips.
If I stepped into the frame and told the three year old me what she had to look forward to was working in an office and paying bills and getting drunk at happy hour and writing fuzz and many more hours holding hands with boys of equitable inconsequence, I am sure she would cry.
I think about how humiliating it would be to explain how I’ve ignored or dismissed most of her nascent dreams. She would ask why, as all children do, and then it would be my turn to cry.
“Too often for the sake of reason, people commit to the meaningless,” wrote Susan Sontag in her critical analysis On Photography.
Which is also a pithy summary of my personal situation for the past number of years.This is where I live. This is what I do. This is who I am. This is okay.
Photography invites us to dream.
Puts us in a meditative state.
Compels us to seek the truth.
In “The Engine of Visualization: Thinking Through Photography”, writer Patrick Maynard suggests that photography allows us “…to imagine seeing things…imagination trades in possibility, in questions about things or states of affairs that, while not currently realized, might prove realizable.”
Simulating the future and remembering share the same network of brain processes and regions, interestingly. Evidence suggests the brain sifts through fragments of memories, recombines them, then produces a picture of possible future events. In essence we clipart our possible selves from snippets of old mental photographs.
Which is why those with impaired memories, like amnesia patients, have difficulty speculating on their futures.
Some philosophers believe mental change is dependent on physical change. This theory is called supervenience.
So it would follow that the best way to reconfigure one’s interior is simply to pack up and move.
Maybe to a rocky island in the Atlantic where creative writing programs are easy to get into, somewhere quaint and historical, with good mass transportation.
Where a new self is entirely possible.