Cogito ergo sum, but if I do not, I need a photo

September 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Every time I am in someone’s home, I am struck by the ubiquity of an odd artifact:  the owners photos.  On walls, bookshelves, and nightstands — why, sometimes whole pieces of furniture made for the purpose — the owners:  in their childhood, at their wedding, during their trip to Australia, in front of the Vatican, shaking hands with an FP1, romantically pensive in candle-light.

Why are those photos there? Are they there for me? You know: as conversation pieces, perhaps (otherwise there would be precious little to talk about); or, less kindly, an attempt to impress me? (Look, FP!)

Or are they there for them — to remind them that they do exist; that this is what they look like; that this is where they have been and have done?  (Cogito ergo sum, but if I do not, I need a photo?)

Or is it a kind of escape:  a reminder that their life can have adventure, romance, some narrative worth telling?   That there are parts of it less miserable and dreadful than the apartment where the photos now hang?

My heirs’ photography of this city was of this sort: it was principally of themselves: themselves in front of monument X, in front of monument Y. While they took their photos I watched others do the same: having themselves photographed with famous places.  Why? I understand photographing the monument, but themselves?  Do they not know how they look?  Or do they… like the way they look?

Perhaps the first time I was struck by these questions was in front of Nefertiti, in Berlin.  The woman posing next to it was so atrociously ugly that I could not avoid — despite my generally generous, liberal and forgiving nature — wondering whether the photo was intended as a contrast.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I expected to hear a “snap” as the camera broke while attempting the feat.

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1 “Famous person”

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