The Photographs I’ve Never Seen

Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos

Rome, 1955

For most of my life, I knew of just one photograph from my parents’ wedding. It wasn’t even from the actual day. A few weeks after they’d gone to Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Hall, a friend hosted a small celebratory dinner party, where a cake decorated with edible nasturtium flowers was served. They are pictured there, my mother, seated, laughing in white, a crown of flowers in her dark hair. My father stands behind her, smiling in a dress shirt, vest, and tie, and wearing tinted glasses, his curly hair combed out like a face-framing halo in a fourteenth-century fresco. Their clasped hands hover in the space between them like a third presence. 

The photograph is washed out from over-exposure and many years of handling. That it was the sole memento of the occasion was, to me, a source of pride—the preciousness imbued by its singularity, the lack of egotism it implied. They must have been so happy they forgot to take pictures! Also, they are gorgeous, like late-Seventies movie stars. I imagined the snapshot born of a briefly remembered duty to document the event before they returned to celebrating.

I knew my mother’s first wedding had involved many guests, bridesmaids’ dresses, and a hired photographer. Like a fairytale—although, instead of three tries, it was two—the narrative in my mind went something like this: the first wedding was too big, too lavish, too much what others wanted; it had looked good on paper, in the photographs. This second wedding—just right—proved that it was the person, not the image, that mattered. It’s hard to imagine today, when we are so accustomed to taking photographs at much lesser occasions: there was no wedding photographer, no mini Polaroid cameras passed among guests, no photo booth, no Instagram hashtag.

When I got my first camera at fifteen, a hand-me-down 35mm Canon from my uncle, I eagerly took pictures of everything I laid eyes on in suburban New Jersey, from the morning light on the kitchen wallpaper to the cotton candy-colored hydrangeas in the backyard, to the shadow from my father’s glasses stretching down his face. But I also became obsessed with the pictures I missed. They haunted me: if only I’d been quick enough, brave enough, to capture the dog reaching back its hind legs toward a spot of sun; the person framed, just so, in the café window. The more I thought about documenting what I saw, the more keenly aware I was of the moments I failed to apprehend. I began to distrust my impulse to document because of the feeling of loss that increasingly accompanied it.

Today, behind the computerized shutter-click of a smartphone camera, I still sometimes sense in myself and in others the impulse to remember something before it’s over—to make some use of an experience even as it’s still happening. Some might explain this as the artist’s instinct to capture and transform. From another perspective, it’s the intellectual’s urge to analyze, to further experience the experience. Or is it a kind of compulsion—in its most cynical form, the capitalist’s need to consume the moment, to own it? We increasingly make commodities of our experiences, transformed into data that is sold to companies in order to sell us still more things. “A way of certifying experience,” Susan Sontag writes, “taking photographs is also a way of refusing it—by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” One thinks of the tourist too busy photographing to see the actual living that is occurring all around him. He forces a fleeting present more quickly into the realm of that-has-been, and the local passersby laugh at his shortsightedness.

The author’s parents celebrating their wedding, Boston, 1981

But in this eagerness lies the knowledge, too, that this moment—this afternoon, this day, this life—will soon be over, and that one cannot keep alive what will necessarily fade. As parents grow older, it’s not unusual to look through old photographs and wonder at their youth. And when they were younger, naturally, so was I. The couple smiling together after their wedding years before I was born are, at one level, the same two people I know now. But familiar as they are, they are indescribably different, too. My mother in the photograph was just a year older than I am now; I wonder what it would be like to meet her—as I am now, as she was then.

Although I loved the fact of their one wedding photo, I wondered, too, why my parents didn’t take more pictures that day—what it might have meant that they hadn’t. It’s not as though we didn’t have photo albums growing up: the thick, padded tomes with glossy, slightly crooked 4x6s encased behind plastic. I leaf through them, revisiting trips to the shore, to my aunt Nora’s apartment with her tiny lemon tree, the birthday parties and evening baths—not always special occasions but simply when my mother or father remembered that the camera had film in it. It’s comforting somehow to see my grandparents, now gone, as I never knew them, young and not yet knowing what their lives would be: just graduating, coming home from the war, newly dating, buying a first home, having a first child. Holding me when I was too young to remember. My parents’ wedding should have been one such occasion, when the film would have been loaded and the shutter clicked. Where was the camera that day?



One photograph I never saw. My mother describes it: the woman slightly shorter than the man, she in a dress, he in a dark suit, the setting indiscernible. Their bodies filled the frame. Her cheekbones were high and angular, her long black hair parted down the middle and pulled into two braids. Neither smiled, as was the custom. The black-and-white ink of the print had faded.

When, as a child, my mother asked about the picture, her grandmother in rural Georgia, Nannan Brock, seemed perturbed: “I don’t know why you’re so interested in that.” She wasn’t anything to be proud of, the woman in the photo. But my mother was fascinated. Her many-greats-grandfather, the man in the picture, had been an itinerant foot-washing Baptist minister, and he had met his wife, the Cherokee woman in the picture, my mother’s many-greats-grandmother, in Ball Ground, Georgia.

However wary of this past, however prideful, Nannan must have taught her daughter how to count to ten in Cherokee. I say she must have because this daughter (my grandmother) had to have taught her own daughter (my mother), who then taught me. It became a ritual we used when I was young to gather courage in situations that required it, like swallowing cough syrup or giving a school presentation. Sowo, tali, tsoi, nvgi, hisgi, sudali, galiquogi, tsunela, sonela, sgohi.

To this day, I’ve never seen the photograph, which my mother thinks was lost in a move. I’ve wondered if my mother dreamed it up, if it ever really existed. If the woman in the photo existed. (Were the two braids a false memory based on the Cowboys and Indians movies that must have populated my mother’s childhood?) Besides a photocopy of a 1906 application for reparations from Congress to the Eastern Cherokee Indians, the counting to ten is the only proof that she was real. The memory of the photograph—at this point, more real than the photograph itself—was passed down from my mother, who says she saw it, to me.

There is a strange dance between concealment and exposure in our family’s attitude toward this woman, each generation reacting against the last—not unlike our country’s obfuscation of its own history, followed by more recent corrective efforts. By the time my mother, who had always been intrigued by the photo, told me about it, the fact of this woman clearly wasn’t something to deny. It wasn’t something to blindly broadcast, either, as if in the hope that my relation, however distant, to this Native American woman about whom I knew so little could add to my virtues or college application. What had her relationship with the foot-washing Baptist really been? In the Disney version, it would be true love against all odds. This seems unlikely. I hesitate to impose a story on her. If I could only see the photograph, I might find some hint in her eyes, a clue unfolding in the corners of her mouth.


Entire decades are missing in our family photo albums. Time is disjointed, skipping four months from a birthday to a vacation, then two years to a sunny day at the beach, or a picnic at the park when Aunt Rose was visiting. The next page, another birthday, and so on. And what of all the moments that do not appear: the car rides to and from school, long twilight walks, tearful fights, the dinner-table talk, and so on? Taking a moment to interrupt that conveyor belt of living to look between the images, I see that each ordinary moment is full. And it is a limited amount of time that we share. The story told by the albums is uneven, incomplete. I know I will remember certain dresses of my mother’s, certain haircuts, certain T-shirts of my father’s, better than others not preserved by their place in the albums.

“Now, one November evening shortly after my mother’s death, I was going through some photographs,” writes Roland Barthes at the start of Part Two of his posthumous book, Camera Lucida. Here, his idea of photography’s essence, what he calls that-has-been, takes on a double meaning. Unlike what we perceive in other media (painting, literature), we know that the thing captured by a photograph was irrefutably once there; in this sense, the photograph “is authentication itself.” That-has-been, and you can’t say it hasn’t. But “by shifting this reality to the past,” no matter whether the subject is alive or not, “the photograph suggests that it is already dead.” That-has-been and is no longer.


Barthes sees, in a photograph of his mother as a young girl, her impending death—a death that has, in fact, already occurred—which implies his own. That his own death would come so quickly he couldn’t have known: he was run over on a Paris street shortly after completing the book. These are the sorts of accidents my young mind always gravitated toward when my parents were late coming home and forgot the usual phone call. They always did come home.

There is another photograph I’ve never seen and, again, know only by my mother’s memory. In it, she is eight or nine and stands next to the corn fields near the farm where her grandparents Nannan Brock and Daddyda lived in Roopville, Georgia. At one of Daddyda’s pig roasts, when platters of pulled pork from the pig that had been slowly turning over a fire pit the entire night before were spread out on a long table under the big oak trees, a tenant farmer found an enormous snake in the fields and bashed its head in with a hoe. In the photo, my mother, her hair cut short, her snaggle-tooth exposed in a lopsided grin, triumphantly holds the dead snake by its tail. Hanging there, it is as long as she is tall.


Surrounded by smartphones and faced with the ever-increasing democratization of the camera, we find ourselves in the age of supercharged mechanical reproduction, where new quandaries about purpose, control, and authenticity arise. Recently, a friend whose wedding was approaching fretted over whether or not to outlaw phones at her ceremony—she didn’t want errant photographs to exist on the Internet outside her supervision. Photography creates “a new social value, which is the publicity of the private,” Barthes observed, well before social media. In Italo Calvino’s story “The Adventure of a Photographer,” Antonino, a “hunter of the unattainable,” obsesses—as I once did—over how to adequately capture real life in photographs, finally to the point of madness. “The life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself,” writes Calvino. What else is a “personal brand” but a commemoration of the self in advance? Composing a photograph requires that the photographer choose what makes it into the frame. We create a frame, too, with the photos we choose to share. The sheer glut of images today demands to be filtered and curated so that only the self-affirming remain—and whether they’re flattering images, or self-deprecating, or parodic, it amounts to the same: the constructed and projected self.

On Mother’s and Father’s Days, my Instagram feed fills with digital copies of old photographs of people’s parents when they were young, looking glamorous, thin, and carefree. The social media convention becomes a kind of competition for whose parent, as a retro-reflection of oneself, is the most chic, the most hip, the most alluring. I have not been immune to this trend. The person posting the image can disavow the vanity of it with a humorous or self-mocking caption, but the project is obvious. This repurposing of an old image in a new form comes from the same impulse as the nostalgic filters that have existed for almost as long as the cameraphone itself. “Juno” and “Crema” and “Amaro” transform our digital images into replicas of vintage film prints—even as Kodachrome has been discontinued since 2009, two years after the release of the first iPhone. But rather than appropriating the recent past by approximating the look of it through filters, these young-parent photos, actual totems of the past, are offered as proof of the Instagram account owner’s good genes or uncomplicated love—his or her lucky inheritance.

The use of nostalgic, film-mimicking filters is now so familiar as to feel inoffensive. But if it once felt cheesy, vulgar even, that was because digitization’s attempt at imitating old photographs is in bad faith: we know the ones and zeros of every image are playing at physicality, one further step removed from the bodies they show. Today, photographs are rarely lost in a move; they might be misplaced in the cloud, disorganized, but rarely truly lost.


Which is more real: the actual photograph or the memory it conjures? The single photo from my parents’ wedding feels more powerful, more immediate, than all the digital files that fill my devices. Those images can feel less credible, too, in their overabundance. “I take photos to store them in my phone, never to look at them again,” my father says of the unmanageable surplus. I remember specific days over others for the photos I took.

For Barthes, even the pre-digital photograph—static, impossible to read—“actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory.” The only photograph of his mother, he writes, “which has given me the splendor of her truth is precisely a lost, remote photograph, one which does not look ‘like’ her, the photograph of a child I never knew.” It isn’t a likeness that moves him, but “her truth,” something like Walter Benjamin’s aura. It indicates a certain essence or authenticity in spite of what Benjamin saw as the problem with the medium, which he thought removed a work of art from its unique “presence in time and space.” “The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture,” Benjamin writes. “For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face.”

Looking at pictures of your parents before you were born can be unnerving, uncanny. It brings to mind all the coincidences and contingencies on which your own existence depends. What if they had never met? If she had turned left, instead of right? If he hadn’t taken the job in the city? What if they had gotten pregnant a month before they did, a year after—who would you be, then?

At my parents’ house, leafing once more through the family albums, a clump of loose prints falls free. When I pick them up, I see my parents posed, sometimes together but mostly apart, taking turns as photographer and subject. My mother wears a cream skirt-suit and cream pumps, my father brown pants and jacket, and again, that halo of curly hair. A shy enthusiasm emanates from their faces. I feel I can see them on display, each one being seen, taken in, by the other. My mother, more outgoing, smiles boldly. Her pose is confident, playful—but younger, less fully herself than as I’ve known her. My father, naturally more shy, grins sheepishly. I can tell he’s very pleased. They stand by the rocky edge of a sea.

“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough,” writes Toni Morrison. “You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.” And yet, there Morrison was, writing it down. How to determine the point at which it all becomes enough?

The fact that I’ve never seen these photographs before should amaze me, even trouble me—where were they all this time?—but the revelation feels perfectly punctual, as if photos are as much of specific times as for them. Where were they taken, I ask my mother, what was the occasion for these photographs I’ve never seen? They’re from Cape Ann, she tells me. It was their honeymoon.

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