Even as I depress the shutter of my iPhone, my heart longs for the more formal photographs of the past. My family albums begin with a leather volume, labeled ALBUM 1—RUSSIA. The album itself is aged—its maroon covers flake, showing the abrasions of age. But within, my Russian Jewish ancestors reappear in sharp resolution and forever fixed in their dignified postures. All these images are photographed against sets—Victorian potted palms, swagged drapery, always the accoutrements of wealth. The women wear beautiful long dresses, with high collars and their hair is upswept or tucked under plumed bonnets. One picture is so perfect that I can detect the lace patterns on my great aunt’s blouse and the engraving on her husband’s golden pocket watch. Their expressions are luminous, solemn as if they knew they inhabited the past, even then in their present.
On a recent trip to Russia, I had a live encounter with the more common photographic experience, now global. . It was one a.m. in St.Petersburg, and I was enjoying the midnight magic of a canal boat ride—the twin twinkle of the stars above and below—reflected in the water. Then I became distracted by flashing rectangles of light all around me—the teenaged tourists were taking their self portraits.
Why here, why now? It “spoiled” the pristine night boat ride. Privately, I had long been thinking—digital photography had led to wretched excess; now it seemed plain wretched.
How can the digital images of today match the dignity and value of those composed portraits? Now, too often, the ease of snapping “shots” catches the subjects open-mouthed, perhaps even munching chicken legs. Of course I also have precious and beautiful digital photographs—my daughters as babies; and I can enjoy and order color prints when the picture is artful. But I cherish the old sepia images and the studied black and white photographs that followed more than the clutter of hundreds of phone videos, Instagram’s and all the awkward candid images.
I would never of course part with that iPhone and its magical abilities, but sometimes, as incoming and outgoing photo files clog my email and life seems an endless download, I yearn for the poses of the past, even the silliness of some stagy shots—My grandmother, in her tropical suits, posed before painted palm trees, with the printed legend “Miami Beach.” Even the formats were fun—the mini telescopes to view the Miami tableaus, the rick racked edges of all my Asbury Park Beach vacation booklets, the black star ‘holders’ that spangle the albums of the 40s, 50’s, 60s. The very process—buying film, having it developed —slowed the headlong rush into the future.
I am happy when my daughter tells me, her finger poised on the trigger, that there is a sepia setting.
Laura Shaine Cunningham is a novelist, memoirist, journalist, and playwright. She has published nine books with Knopf, Riverhead, Simon & Schuster, and Harper Collins including two memoirs and seven novels; and hundreds of articles in The New York Times. Her two memoirs, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, were excerpted in The New Yorker and The New York Times. A Place in the Country was a New York Times Notable Book. She has also written a column for The New York Observer and published pieces in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, the London Times, and regional US publications and many literary journals. Laura’s literary recognition includes two NEA awards, two NYFA awards, a Yaddo Fellowship, and a Ford Foundation award. In addition, she has served as a guest speaker/faculty member at Harvard, Omega, Woodstock Memoir Festival, Woodstock Writers Festival, and the San Miguel Allende Writers’ Festival. Her work has been praised by Harper Lee, Muriel Spark, Jessica Mitford, Stanley Elkin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Anne Tyler and Chaim Potok. As a playwright, her play Beautiful Bodies is widely produced. Her play Bang was first produced by Steppenwolf Theatre and is published with two other plays, Beautiful Bodies and Cruising Close to Crazy. Her short plays are often anthologized and performed in 10-minute play festivals. Six of her monologues are included in the upcoming Monologues on the Edge, (Rowan Littlefield) to be published in Fall, 2019.
“Tech Perdu: In Search of Sepia and Poses of the Past” was originally published in Chronogram (2008).