I first learned to smile at a camera. I’m not exactly sure how the whole learning to smile thing works, but I know I mastered my huge-grin, happy-eyed smile by staring at a strange flashing box my dad would tell me to look at while growing up. For every memory I have of my childhood, I also have a picture in my head of my dad holding, first a disposal camera, then a point and shoot camera and finally the manual camera he uses today. Thousands of memories and moments are captured in the negatives, photo books and digital slide shows my dad has compiled over the years.
Every time I look at one of those photos, I feel something. Take, for example, the photo above of my grandma and me. I look at this photo and feel overwhelmed with joy. I tear up every time I see it, as warm thoughts about my sweet, sweet grandma fill my heart. I love the way I look fearless, confident and worry-free, mimicking a lady who can do no wrong. I love the look in my grandma’s eyes even more–adoration, hope, happiness. And something about that Diet Coke can, for me, makes this my favorite photo. This photo is not only life captured, but a grandmother’s love captured. A spontaneous interaction, an outpouring of warmth.
All great photography has the same “there’s something about that” feel that you can’t always quite put your finger on. It is a moment in time, frozen as accurately as possible. It is the manifestation of feeling and action. There is a nostalgia about it, or at least a moment of deja vu, where you either feel like you’re stepping back in time or recognizing your own experiences in the frame.
I don’t think I’ve seen any photography better than that of LIFE Magazine in its prime. Everyone knows the V-J Day photo as well as a number of other LIFE “classics.” They’ve become classics because of how well they capture the human condition. I understand something new about young children every time I see the first photo in this gallery. In contrast, gallery’s like this one of the Vietnam War provide a shaking reminder of the devastation of conflict. LIFE photographs capture stories first. I think that is what makes them such a success.
Good photography fits into any number of definitions and styles; however, all great photos tell a powerful story. Even though my father is not a professional photographer (although his great grandfather and a few other Darby’s were), my dad’s photos are great to me because they tell the most powerful stories of all, the stories of my memories. When I think of my dad’s photography from this perspective, I finally understand why he hardly ever puts a camera down. Next time he asks to take my picture, I won’t whine at him like I usually do; this time I’ll flash him a smile, the one I’ve practiced and perfected in front of his camera all along.