The first time I saw it, I nearly swooned. Okay, ‘swoon’ might be slightly exaggerated, but it definitely stopped me in my tracks to the point where I nearly bent over backward to get a closer look.
The picture was of a welder, with sparks flying everywhere so perfectly printed they looked like a firework leaping off the page. All the contrasts were balanced; the image was sharp and crisp and expertly framed, like those you find in art galleries or on the pages of National Geographic. The unknown classmate’s photo was beautiful—the best, in my opinion, of the whole semester.
I personally never had such great instances to work with. I’d been taking photos for years before this photography class but was very much used to digital cameras, and they do a lot of the thinking for you. Manually adjusting the aperture and shutter speed while trying to figure out decent lighting, not to mention a good instant in time that would concede a perfect frame like the one of the welder, was more than I could handle in one go. I almost always had good composition, but technically, the pictures were usually slightly out of focus.
Manual photography, similar to pipe carving, needed a lot of practice, and photography unfortunately is a subject where practice requires more than a little sugar. Getting supplies meant climbing over snow mounds in back alleys and searching for hole-in-the-wall shops that looked more like antique exhibits than stores—sustained, I suspect, almost entirely by the hole-ridden pockets of art students. But I did manage a few good frames during the semester, the best being a photograph of a man shoveling snow in front of a palm tree that I shot one very, very early Sunday morning. I was quite proud of it on two accounts, both on how it turned out and also because it was the first time I had solicited something from a complete stranger.
Asking permission to take the picture was a pretty big deal for me. I barely ask things from people I know, as my family had very strong, never-explicitly-stated opinions about asking for things. It just was not done.
You can imagine then my surprise when Mr. Omar saw me at university during my semester abroad and basically said, “Hi, nice day… do you want to be my girlfriend?” It did not happen exactly like that, but he was very forward with conversation (as he is with literally every person he meets)…far more than to what I was accustomed, and astronomically more than I would have ever dared. In regard to a relationship I think he was probably joking, but I took him (and most things at that time) quite seriously and thought, “Well, my schedule appears to be free. I’m not doing anything else at the moment, so why not?” And that was the instant.
Afterward came a litany of meet-and-greets, where it seemed I had to say hello to pretty much every person he had ever known…family, friends, neighbors, “that random acquaintance I met once at a shop,” the second-cousin twice removed. A lot of people make a big deal of things like this, as if meeting extended family or learning personal information equates to some sort of job interview or a fancy reveal. I was happy to have it up front and rather ordinarily presented. Just like a photograph, bleached areas require a lot of burning which may or may not coax more detail from the film. If you accept a dark negative, it’s only logical to deduce there is going to be whited-out detail in the print… some of which you may or may not be prepared for.
And it’s not like all the detail I got was the best I could have imagined. There were lots of interesting things—brightly-colored outfits, overly strong foods I was sure burned a hole through my insides, mentally-different people you’re not quite sure how to talk to, a parrot. Sad and difficult things also. But as I said before, we don’t always prefer what is most attractive, and if it had all been cerulean I probably would have been suspicious anyway. There’s nothing worse for me than a bad surprise. I try to predict them too much, too often, in a kind of hopeful, reverse-outcome Schrodinger’s cat sort of fashion… but fortunately that was unnecessary here. The things that followed were unusual to me at first but quite ordinary to him, and the initial instant I got was pretty conventional. It had a slight surprise to it, like finding a palm tree in the middle of a snowbank, but certainly no fancy fauns or flying sparks. It was just two people saying hello, as people often do.
It seems to me that people of the digital era often get very picky about the first images within these snapshots. They want perfect beginnings with romance, drama, chiseled chests and copious amounts of sexual tension. In my case, I got things like “you have a perfectly-legal, working, city council pay phone in the middle of your house?” and “I think your mother may have just tried to kill me with chili peppers.” A lot of people seem to overlook the snowy palms such as this. Everyone wants a welder with his firework.
And I don’t understand why also. Nature itself is far less fussy about content, offering so much assistance for snapping a picture it borders on embarrassing. A seed must just fall, gravity-assisted, to earth (and could you really get a bigger target?).
A picture, likewise, is similar from a technical aspect. All you really have to do is expose the negative. Nature doesn’t care if your shirt is slimming or whether the light’s caught your eyes just right. You just have to press the button.
It’s after the button is pressed that even nature begins to get selective, destroying the unfit, unworthy or the not cared for, depending on the theory in which you find the most truth. There’s a point in traditional photography similar to this moment—I mentioned it before when I spoke lastly of Barberini. It is a point, as previously mentioned, of enormous tension, and in my opinion, one of the best parts of everything—when volatile chemicals move in the darkness, waiting to swallow the light.
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