On Seeing

Because "on photography" is taken.

My dad doesn’t know that I intended to sit down today and write about the role of photography in my life, but he is grieving, and thus he is sending me pictures of pictures through text message. Many of them are older than I’ve ever seen, and I thought I’d seen all the photos there were to see.

I tell him that in a picture of his whole immediate family from a birthday party in the mid-’60s, he is the only one smiling, something that seems notable to me because he’s now the only one still alive. He ignores me to keep the stream of images incoming. I see the cousin I haven’t seen in decades, younger than I could possibly remember her, squinting from the sun. My paternal grandmother peeks through a city window and looks up, younger and paler than I have ever seen her, with thin eyebrows barely there.

There is a Polaroid of my mom pregnant with me, 22 years old, smiling in glossy red lipstick. There is my mom with a tiny red car, existing somehow before I existed; she’s not a tall person but to me she always looks so tall, even in pictures. There is me and my brother on the front lawn with our Uncle Ray’s dog Harley—I loved that dog. My brother and I are holding hands over his shoulder as I rest my chin on his head. Did he hold my hand or did I take his? There he is again, a toddler, perfectly framed in a pumpkin patch. Who took this one?

I tell my dad to please scan all of these pictures so that I can have “real” versions—or at least versions I could print again, that I could re-create, without his sneakers or the table in the shot. Again, I’m ignored.

Once I was old enough, I took over as family photographer, and as a teenager I remember resenting that my parents weren’t taking enough pictures, that they didn’t care, but this is actually not true. There are pictures and I’m in them, usually on holidays when we were dolled up or anytime there was a big snowfall. I resented them as a teenager for other reasons, chief among them that I was a teenager, and thinking they weren’t documenting our family enough was just one of the many I articulated to myself. One thing I’ve always cared about is documentation, of what I saw and what I felt, and I didn’t (don’t!) understand anyone who doesn’t. Even if it all disappears one day, or there’s no one there to care enough to look, someone cared enough to create it in the first place.

As a small child, I wanted a pink Barbie camera, and my Uncle Rich went to every store to find me one—I remember being perched on the navy blue couch at my grandparents’, an utterly spoiled child before there were any other cousins to compete with me, awaiting something I was convinced I needed. It was the start of a lifelong need. I remember being a little older and having a neon green Ninja Turtles camera, which was rectangular and long. I remember one that had film you could just drop in—what were those called?

I remember every camera I’ve ever had, but especially the one I got in high school, because I actually saved up money to buy the Canon Rebel at Circuit City in cash, a 35 mm that I must have read about online. I replaced the strap it came with with an embroidered one from the ’70s that my dad had, though I don’t think I’d ever seen him take a picture until iPhones. Maybe another quirk of memory telling the story I prefer rather than the one that’s true.

When I was a senior, my then-boyfriend and I dressed up as each other for Halloween, which basically meant that we swapped band T-shirts: his Movielife for my Pete Yorn. At a party, it was pointed out by the oboe player I still had a crush on that if he actually wanted to be me, he needed my camera around his neck—I was never without it—but I wasn’t willing to give it up. Teen girls and photography are a cliché, but it’s a way of not just documenting but manifesting autonomy, making concrete what you see in a world that tells you what you see is meaningless.

I went to college with that and a digital camera I had asked my grandpa for as a graduation present, my first. I took photos for the school paper for one semester, but mostly I just put faux-arty pictures of my Chuck Taylors and bed on LiveJournal. The Canon Rebel is still in the garage at the house where I grew up, with a “FAIR TRADE NOW” sticker on its back. These were the cameras I also used to take pictures of my sister, who is 15 years younger than me, and I would make her be a model, which I think in hindsight is not a good thing to do to a small child. We’d go to the park by the bay and I’d shoot black and white photos. I’d tell her to stay still as she sipped her orange juice from a straw so I could get the cute puff of her cheeks.

I never took a photography class, and maybe it remains my one pure pursuit, something I’ve always done for the fun of it, for the attempt to make something beautiful, but also because I think that taking a picture of someone or something is an expression of love. Caring enough to capture someone in good light, not caring about artificiality so much that you won’t say, “don’t move.” They haven’t asked me in a long time, but I do love to take photos of tourists. I like to tell them where to move, and I take lots of angles; I get portrait and landscape. The ones who understand what I’m doing hoot and holler in appreciation: They know that, beyond just Instagram or whatever, getting a good photo is about caring.

Last year, I got myself a mirrorless Sony a6000, and since I’ve been working hard on my book, I’ve been taking it out on our long weekend walks. We see the same things every time but in different lights. I’ve been getting every angle on the San Augustín church, which has become a favorite of mine, and I’m getting the free chickens of Parque Luis Muñoz Rivera: every rooster, every hen, all the new baby chicks. I’ve waded into the water at Escambrón at sunset too early to get the shot I want of the whole city of Old San Juan, but I’ll try again. There are things that can’t be faked or manipulated, and the sun is one of them. I am keeping pictures of different flowers and trees in a plant-identification app, to see how they change throughout the year. These photos aren’t for anything but to help me appreciate what I see, to love it more by finding its good side, its good light. To use my brain for something other than words, of which I keep worrying I’ll run out. This essay is coming easily.

Often, when I think a sight is beautiful, what I’m seeing is something that reminds me of a movie. Bursts of extreme red or orange against a blue sky: Blue Velvet. The greens and browns that seem to be lit by halos during Puerto Rico’s sunsets (in Culebra, it’s the best): Before Night Falls. The movies are my only real visual education. When I take pictures of people, or of our dog Benny, I am just seeing love, I think. I don’t know if that’s how I would’ve characterized it if my dad hadn’t been sending me all those pictures this morning. To take pictures of kids before their self-consciousness sets in—something that might have been lost to immediate digital availability—is to give them a way to remember later that at one time they never thought about how their cheeks looked, their teeth, their upper arms. I’m talking about myself: the relief of remembering maybe one day I could again not see myself so critically, like I used to.

I know there is a whole literature on photography that I am missing, that I’m not engaging with, and I bought some huge old books on the history of photography and modern art when Huntington’s Book Revue went out of business. Suddenly, I do want to learn more; I want to understand what I’m looking at, what I’m seeing, but I also want the wonder and surprise to remain, even when I fully understand the jargon, am in full control to get precisely the image I want. I’m going to start printing photos out more, maybe even bring out that old film camera of mine from high school. I want to appreciate something for myself, and I want to leave the documentation behind, to remind people of how I saw, whom and what I loved.

This Friday’s paid subscriber interview will feature Wordloaf’s Andrew Janjigian. We talked about his fascinating career (mycology is involved), leaving America’s Test Kitchen to launch his own newsletter, and the difficulty of striking a balance between supporting heritage grains and writing accessible recipes.

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I should take this section away until I have something to say.

I finished My Struggle Book 3!!! So onto Book 4, and also reading a ton of stuff for book research.

I made an excellent noodle stir-fry. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s ok. This one was excellent. I am liking making breakfast hash with whatever is around. I am liking toast with peanut butter and guineo manzano. In the photo is an espresso martini that Israel, my fiancé made me, with whiskey in place of vodka because I am a whiskey (and gin) person.