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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Even memory jostling takes energy. It is so hot!’

I’m sorting through some old snapshots. This is about the most strenuous activity I am capable of in this heat. A certain amount of wrist action is involved in turning over the pictures, but even that action is rather languid. Looking at all of the moments caught by the camera jostles my memory. Even memory jostling takes energy. It is so hot!

The photographs are in a big cardboard box. Most of them are at least 15 years old, since film was replaced by digital photography. No attempt has ever been made to classify, label or categorize them. These are the rejects, the pictures that didn’t make it into the albums over the years. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

I think there is an unspoken taboo against throwing images of loved ones into the trash, and your snapshots are generally of people you love, or used to love. Sometimes memory jostling hurts.

In 1900, Kodak introduced America to the Brownie camera, and ever since people have been documenting their lives. Except for weddings and school pictures, they didn’t need a professional photographer.

Now, people document every aspect of their lives more than ever before, but the images are locked up in their digital phones and shared primarily online. Yes, Facebook will own your images forever, but for most of us they are transitory, ephemeral.

For the albums, I chose the photographs I thought would represent my life in the kindest possible light. These are the best-foot-forward views of family and social life.

Here we are on a picnic in the country, wading at the shore, climbing Baxter Mountain, gathered around a Christmas tree. If Bobby was attacked by yellowjackets, Uncle Paul fell over a tree root on the trail, Aunt Bea was stung by a jellyfish, and Linda and Gina fought until Mom put the Cabbage Patch Kid doll high up on a shelf and said fine, if you’re going to squabble over what Santa gave you, then nobody can play with it, you won’t find evidence here. If Aunt Maude got drunk on Thanksgiving and flew into a rage at Uncle Herbert for some ancient indiscretion, before lurching outside into a blizzard–if, as I say, such untoward events did in fact occur, you will not find them documented in the family album.

Nor will you be likely to see the disorder of daily life: clothing and toys strewn around the house, ashtrays, beer cans or other signs of debauchery.

Also, in my albums, you will not see any unflattering photographs of me. Photographic excellence may be taken into account, but not at the expense of flattery. If I am choosing between a sharply focussed photograph of myself and a nice, misty one, I’ll choose the latter every time. After all, which do you prefer–for yourself, I mean–justice or mercy? Stark realism is just fine for others, but in photographs of myself I prefer subtlety and nuance, especially as time goes by. The only time I throw away a photograph is when it is of me, not as I wish to be represented.

This is silly, I know, since in real life I am in plain view most of the time, not counting the anti-COVID-19 mask I wear in public these days. I’m not fooling anybody by tearing up photographs of myself. The way I see it is, why take chances? After you die and the biographers come to select photographs to illustrate a book about your life, do you want them to find that one of you in the bathing suit that makes you look horrible? I don’t think so.

As I go through the box, I’m finding that I enjoy the rejects more than the pictures I considered album quality. They are more natural, more evocative of the way things really were.

Someone sent me a digital photo printout of my daughter, Molly, and me. It’s a beautiful portrait of Molly. She looks so happy and pretty. I, on the other hand, look lumpy and frumpy, like some goofy hag. As I stare at the picture, my friend Darla wanders over.

“Do you think this picture looks like me?” I ask her.

“Omigod!”she screams. “This is so totally not you! It’s, like, an optical illusion! It’s a disfigurement!”

I really, really like Darla.

Pretty soon I am going to print out my favorite digital snapshots from my phone. But not now. It’s too hot.

Have a good week.