They say you can’t capture the Grand Canyon in a picture. A photograph puts borders on something boundless, puts edges on the infinite. You may take a beautiful photo of the Grand Canyon, but it will never contain the everything that’s just outside the viewfinder.
What a photograph can do is trigger a small, controlled detonation in your memory that shakes loose the sensual experience that accompanied the click of the shutter. In the case of the Grand Canyon, the searing heat of the Arizona sun, the endless stripes of layered clay, the smell of hot dirt mixed with the vague vanilla sweetness of Ponderosa Pines, the claustrophobic crush of tourists jockeying for position to take photographs that inevitably fail to document what they’re seeing. These sensations are invisible, but the right photo can still capture them.
That’s what Liam loves about photographs. They are time-travel devices, each little explosion in his brain opening a momentary portal to the past. What separates a great photograph from a bad one has nothing to do with f-stops or shutter speeds — it’s how much of the experience can be conjured by what was captured on the film. So it’s not quite time travel – it was time compression, a sense that the moment you’re looking at in the photograph is actually right now. In a good photo, there is no then.
That is how he felt about all of his pictures of Lynn. There isn’t this Lynn or that Lynn, there’s just Lynn. He could probably put a pile of pictures in chronological order, but why? All he sees in any of the photos is the woman he loves. Not then, and not now, but always.
Lynn feels differently about the photos. In their twenty-odd years together, she has gained weight and lost weight, bared herself in fashion and buried herself in frump, and every photo is a distinct moment in her sometimes-turbulent relationship with her body. If she finds Liam looking at a photo from their first years, like when he was first learning the craft and she would playfully pose while he fiddled with f-stops, she’ll accuse him of missing who she used to be; if she finds him looking at a more recent photo, she will accuse him of judging who she has become. What he finds most frustrating is that he genuinely does not see the difference between the two photographs. They are both just pictures of Lynn, and he loves them all. Maybe it’s because he loves her, or maybe because she really is lovely in every photo. He doesn’t care which it was — why analyze happy when you can just be happy?
It’s just like pictures of the Grand Canyon. Lynn will see only what is in the photo, this thin sliver of the everything, the barely recognizable bit that the beauty becomes when it’s confined by boundaries. What Liam experiences is everything outside the lines — the glint in her eyes that gives away her glee, the alluring aroma of her sweat and sprayed scent, the perfect weight of her exhausted head resting on his shoulder. All of this combined, and immeasurably more, is what Liam sees in every picture; all of this is what he means when he says, “It’s a picture of Lynn.”
He wishes he could explain this to her. He wants her to see how the details that distress her are so insignificant to the big picture, the picture beyond the borders, the picture that he sees every time he looks at her. He wants her to understand that he has never, not once, thought of a photo of her as a good photo or a bad photo. Every snapshot is just a tiny explosion in his brain that collapses the entirety of their time together into a single moment — not then, and not now. Always.
So he keeps trying to find a way to tell her.
(c) 2013, william reagan
(#30 in the 2013 series, Everyday Tales: 30 Stories Inspired by 30 Stranger’s Photographs. Find them all here.)