Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Worth a Thousand Words

Sandra Parshall

This may sound like heresy coming from a writer, but I think a photograph can
often tell a more compelling story than words ever could.

A novel is an artificial construction that examines a situation, an event, a set of characters, from many different angles, and may leave the reader with a variety
of contradictory emotions. A photograph is a moment in real time that can capture an experience much broader than the details within the frame.

Every major event since the invention of photography has been captured in iconic photographs. The Civil War produced some of the first battlefield pictures the world had ever seen, and those photos make the war real in a way that words in history books can't.

A handful of pictures define the Vietnam War: a little girl running down a road, screaming, after napalm burned off her clothes; a man with his hands bound behind his back as a South Vietnamese Army officer held a gun to his head, his life one second away from ending; American helicopters lifting off for the last time, leaving behind tens of thousands of South Vietnamese still begging to be taken to safety as Saigon fell to the Communist army. Think of World War II and certain photos will come to mind. Think of September 11, 2001, and your memory will produce a slideshow of indelible images.

Even in the early days of photography, ordinary people preserved the milestones of their own lives in pictures. A century ago, having a photo shot was a big deal and usually involved dressing up and posing formally, somberly, no hint of a smile allowed. Look at old photos of brides in their gowns or new parents with their offspring – their serious expressions and stiff postures convey the life-changing importance of the event they’re recording. Faded pictures of young men in uniform, looking like children about to go off to war and possible death, are enough to break your heart.

Browse though photos taken over several decades, everything from studio portraits to family snapshots, and you can see
society changing before your eyes. Smiles and laughter appear, poses relax, clothing becomes more casual. Today the most common happenings in our lives are recorded, along with the weddings and the arrival of babies. Digital cameras make it easy, and they’ve made the whole world accessible to amateur photographers like me.

I’ve always loved taking pictures, but the only camera I had much patience with
was my Polaroid Spectra, which produced instant prints, however poor the quality was. Digital photography has been a revelation. When my first, low-end digital camera was brand-new in 2005, I took it to the National Zoo for my first visit with Tai Shan, the lovable giant panda cub born there after many years of disappointing efforts at breeding this endangered species.

With a somewhat better camera, I photographed everything from Tai and his parents to butterflies and spiders, from geese to ice-covered shrubs. I hope I'll never be in a situation where I could photograph a cataclysmic event. I'm happy to record the everyday things that mean something to me and or simply strike me as interesting subjects. With a picture I can say, This is what my little world looked like at that moment in my life.

I’ve taken countless pictures of my favorite subjects, our cats Emma and Gabriel.

Miss Emma, with the lovely variations of her markings and colors, is patiently helping me learn how to use my new camera, my first DSLR.

Soon I'll take the new camera to the zoo and get some new pictures of Tai Shan. He's almost three now, and he and I have both come a long way. The next pictures will be the best in a technical sense, but my first fuzzy photo of him will always be my favorite. It captured not merely an image but a magical moment, when I stood three feet away from one of the rarest and most endearing animals on earth, looked directly into his curious, intelligent eyes, and regained a hope for our planet’s future that I had thought was lost forever.

I would need far more than a thousand words to explain what Tai Shan means to me. But one picture of a smiling baby bear says it all.

(Note: You can see both contemporary and historic photographs -- from amateur to professional -- by the hundreds of thousands on My personal, very amateur, pictures are posted at


Cat Dubie said...

Beautiful pictures, Sandy.

Carol said...

Such striking photographs, Sandy! They made my day.

Onkel Hankie Pants said...

Thanks for a wonderful essay on amateur (and I use that word deliberately and approvingly) photography. On the one hand, you increased my guilt at taking so few photos recently. On the other hand, you inspired me to get out there again and start shooting! And oh how I envy your purchase of a DSLR. I'm still saving up.

May I call your attention to your use of a "common figure" (I didn't use the C word!) in modern writing? When those of us of a certain age were growing up (in my case, the 50s), we would compare our modern lives with those of our predecessors "100 years ago," and we would be talking about pre-Civil War America. Truly a different time.

In your example, photography in that era was indeed a novel and difficult pursuit and candid shots were rare. But I catch myself now when I am tempted to use the "100 years ago" comparison and ask whether things were really so different in, say, 1908, when cars, airplanes, and telephones had already been around for a while. In the case of photography, the Kodak Brownie camera was eight years old. Kodak has a nice little Website celebrating the 100th anniversary of Brownie. Shown are children taking photos and lots of smiling posers.

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, you're right -- 100 years ago wasn't all that far back in history. :-) Not everyone had a camera, though, or could afford to buy film and have pictures developed. When I was a kid, families who wanted "good" pictures would go to Olin Mills Studio -- were those only in the south, where I'm from, or were they more widespread? The pictures were in "color" but it was a strange sort of color that looked as if it were painted onto the picture.

Wow, I'm really giving away my age! I remember using an early Polaroid model on the job when I was a very young newspaper reporter. I took the picture, let it develop, then coated it with a fixative. I had a friend who owned a "real" camera, and I was so envious! Well, now I have a real camera of my own, and I'm going to photograph everything in my path from here on out. Too bad it's so heavy, though. I can't lug it around at mystery conferences, so I'll take my pocket camera, a Canon G7. That's what I used to take some of the pictures I posted in my blog.

Julia Buckley said...

Sandra, these are lovely photos. And no, Olin Mills studios aren't only in the south. My brother worked at one as a young man.

And my first camera? A Brownie box model.