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More images, much less meaning

National View

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There was a time when you'd come back from Spain, or even just the Jersey Shore, with a couple of rolls of film tucked safely into your toiletry bag. A few days later, you'd find yourself in line at the photo desk of your local pharmacy, waiting to retrieve your developed images with a sense of nervous anticipation.

It took willpower to make it onto the sidewalk without sneaking a peek inside the envelope. Invariably, half of the pictures were out of focus. Sometimes, you'd find that your head had been cut off. But typically there would be at least one fantastic shot as well, with all of you looking radiant and spontaneous, and a few more than that would be passable. For your efforts, you'd come away with something with which to fill a few pages of an album, with enough room left over to add the occasional matchbook front or dried flower.

The digital photography revolution roughly coincided with the births of my two daughters, now ages 4 and 6. Finally, I had something to immortalize in an album besides my dysfunctional romantic life. And so I immortalized — and then some. No event seemed too trivial to capture. When they dressed up in tutus and swim goggles just to be silly, when they danced suggestively to Miley Cyrus, I felt compelled to capture the image for posterity's sake.

For a while, I kept up with the sorting, naming, uploading and ordering (and editing of) prints. The albums featuring my daughters as newborns are both masterpieces of discernment.

It was sometime in 2009 that I fell behind, then so far behind that I nearly stopped taking pictures of them, since the very thought of new images of their grinning punims became synonymous in my mind with hard labor. Indeed, for my past efforts, I now had a hard drive filled with hundreds if not thousands of photo files that I lacked the energy to go through. Never mind to look at again.

On my bimonthly to-do lists, along with "Clean out basement" and "Write thank-you note to Mom's best friend for educational toys received a year ago, Christmas," I now found myself adding, "Deal with photo nightmare."

Photographic memory

The years passed. Digital photography and I were at a stalemate until October, when my dad died. It wasn't unexpected, but it still shocked me in a way that only the child of a deceased parent can understand. I simply could not believe that he was gone from this Earth — that he'd never totter up the front steps of my house again, as he did every other Sunday, and hook his cane around the interior knob of the front door.

I couldn't believe I'd never see his face again either, even if the blank and gaunt one that I witnessed at the end bore almost no resemblance to the quietly beaming Dad I'd known in the family, or the quietly intense one I'd see practicing, teaching or onstage. (He was a cellist.)

The loss of my father and the resulting disorientation made me crave paper photos in a way I hadn't in years, especially ones of him before Parkinson's disease stole his last facial expression. They were no substitute for the man, but at least they could be touched and held — and beheld — unlike my father, who was now unreachable and unable to be seen.

I found I wanted hard copies of my still-living family members, too — concrete facts to counteract the sensation of sloshing sea beneath my feet. My mother must have felt the same way. The morning after my father died, she got out her old albums from the 1970s and early '80s — fat, crepitating affairs with gilded vinyl covers in turquoise and maroon, featuring page after page of fading Kodak snapshots of the family that she and my dad had raised together.

Here, undeniably, was our family's past, dated by year, and laid out for all the world to see: our holidays in Cape Cod, Canada and Vermont; our house exchanges to Twickenham, England, and Lausanne, Switzerland; our circuitous drives to Wisconsin to see my dad's cousin who owned a dairy farm; our Thanksgiving dinners and concerts, birthdays and graduations.

The setbacks and sadness, anger and boredom that mark any human existence were nowhere in evidence, but that was OK. It was still a record of my dad's and our lives: my sisters learning how to horseback-ride; my hideous Dorothy Hamill haircut; my dad chasing down a ball on a tennis court. I'd never been so thankful for the diligent organizer that my mother has always been.

A few days later, I decided it was time to take on the photo nightmare on my computer, and I uploaded hundreds of shots onto snapfish.com and ordered prints. A week later, as I leafed through the mountain of glossy 3-by-5s, I came upon one of my father from our last vacation together, this past July.

In the picture, he's sitting next to my mother on the porch of our rental beach house, looking frail, but still very much part of a long-married couple. (They were together 50 years.) It's not a particularly flattering photo of either one of them. Even so, the image electrified me. My father looked so shockingly alive. I wondered if he knew it was all about to end.

Digital dearth

Going through the pile, I got to thinking that digital photography's chief selling points — the abilities to see the finished product instantly and to take countless pictures without incurring any additional charge — have turned out to be mixed blessings. With effort and cost excised from the equation, photos have become too plentiful. And at the same time — as more and more pictures are taken on smartphones, "shared" on social media if at all, then lost to the cacophony of the digital universe — meaningful images have become too scarce.

Many of my friends, forever switching among their laptops, tablets and smartphones, can no longer even say where their photo files are located.

Ultimately, the loss is maybe less about numbers than about quality and permanence. Printed images are crisper than pixelated ones. They are also tangible: material objects that can be grasped, pasted or leaned against a dresser mirror.Digital images have a distant, once-removed quality — kind of like dead fathers, come to think of it.

In any case, many of us no longer look to print photos to safekeep our memories. In some respects, maybe it's for the best.

When you gaze at the same snapshots over and over again during the course of a lifetime, the images become part of the recollection itself until the two are interchangeable, and it's hard to say what you remember at all.

Do I really remember standing in front of Big Ben as a child, or do I just remember the photo of me doing so? I can no longer say for sure, but I do know that that photograph became part of my sense of self.

I can't help wondering whether — with every digital image we casually take and delete from our iPhones or Androids — we're stripping photography of its awesome powers to keep the past in our sights.

Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of the forthcoming novel The Pretty One. This piece originally ran in the New York Times.

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