These days, to imagine a world in which you don’t exist is to imagine a world in which you have never been photographed. We’re so used to seeing ourselves, stabilised by selfies, profile photos, snapchat, looped snippets of movement on Vine. A smile. A shake of the head. Full-on, three-quarter, profile. We ply each other with pictures of how we look as though we no longer needed, or possessed, the use of memory. How accustomed we’ve grown to the ease of this, this ever lengthening catalogue of who we are, this ballast of images that shores us up and defines us, knowing and self-aware as we stare into the greedy uncritical surface of our smartphones and tablets. We click on beauty face or contrast, we fiddle with lighting and focus, to make sure what we’re seeing, and sending, is really us, the us we recognise. The us we know we know.
But it wasn’t always like this. I took my first photos, or ‘snaps’, as we used to say, with a Kodak Brownie Flash IV, a box-shaped camera made out of leatherette-covered cardboard, with a fixed lens at the front, a viewfinder at the top and a shutter release lever on the right-hand side. I’d hold the box at waist level and depress the lever to take a photograph, careful not to jog it as I did so. It didn’t occur to me then – why should it have done? – that the one thing I could never do was take a photo of myself. (By ‘myself’, of course, I mean my face.) In order to take the photo I needed to look down. Looking up, I had no idea what the lens might be framing. Photography was reflexive, but not self-reflexive. Selfies, in other words, were not an option. You could always persuade someone else to take your photograph, of course. The younger, and cuter, you were, the likelier it was that you’d succeed. Being first-born also helped. What family album (remember those?) didn’t have a dozen times as many pages devoted to the eldest child as to those who came later, to their justifiable chagrin?
Until very recently, photography was expensive. There was the cost of the actual film, which had to be taken from its cardboard box, removed from its special protective packaging, inserted into the camera and lined up with the internal sprocket, ready to be wound on, at which point the camera case was closed and the film could no longer be exposed to the light, and any mistakes that might have been made were irremediable. All film, black and white even more than colour, was pricey and the price shot up if you wanted an ASA that wasn’t the standard 100. (I’m losing you, aren’t I? ASA became ISO, if that’s any help.) There were economies of scale, of course. A 36 shot film cost less than half as much again as one with only 24 shots, but the downside was that you had to be patient that much longer. What all this meant though was that, before you took a photograph, you thought about it. A photograph was a contract you made with the world, a relationship governed by economics, sentiment and aesthetic sense. It had a certain weight.
And then, once the film had been finished, rewound and removed from the camera, carefully to avoid unwanted exposure, it had to be developed. Real buffs had their own dark room; for the rest of us, the most likely option was the local chemist. It wasn’t cheap and the pleasure of seeing what you’d done was delayed by days or, for an extra charge, by 24 hours. The photographs came back in a sort of folder, usually Kodak yellow, with the negatives in their own little pocket and were, in my experience, almost invariably a disappointment, a gratification both deferred and subtly unfulfilled. Like good cheese or sloe gin, photographs needed time to mature. They needed you to move on, until what they showed you was muted or glazed by nostalgia.
How much of the web of memories, half-memories and appropriated memories that make up our past is dependent on the photographic record? A record as broken, spasmodic, interrupted as the fossil record of the human species. Holidays when no one had a camera have a different, after-the-event existence from the ones that were documented, if they exist at all. There are beaches in my childhood of which I have no memory, others in which I could touch each rock pool, run from each wave and yet some of them are black and white because my father liked to experiment, or coloured in the candy-like colours of 1960s slides, or the shades are too vivid because he read his light meter wrong. There is a series of slides he took of me one holiday in Wales. The weather was stormy and we were waiting by the breakwater of a pebbled beach for my mother to come out of the hairdressers. I am throwing stones into the sea, not skimming them as my father did, but hurling them as hard as I can, in what looks like a rage I no longer know the reason for, and an exhilaration that’s almost entirely the result of my father’s dramatic handling of the light and of the curve my arm makes as I throw. The rest of the holiday might never have been.
Which is why it can be so disconcerting to come across a photograph of yourself from a period you thought was already accounted for in the record. I spent the first part of the 1980s in northern Italy. I had a camera, an SLR, my friends had cameras. We never moved without them. I thought I had copies of every photo taken of me during those years, and the following years in Rome, until I was at a party over thirty years later, of one of the group and there I was on a pin board, my friend and I, smiling at whoever held the camera, and I saw an expression on my face that I didn’t recognise as mine. I was moved to the point of tears. Who is this man, I thought, and how can I have lost him so completely, only to find him here again, as if we have never been parted? What must it have been like to be him? to be me? And how many other images of me, I wondered, must be pinned to other walls, or stuffed into drawers? It isn’t a question of the photograph stealing the soul, that primitive fear, but of something more fleeting, some fragment of fossilised bone that both confirms and challenges our knowledge of what we are. A small gap in the record closed.