Behind the Lens

by Julieanna Blackwell


He always started by explaining that his mother was never one for pictures. She took them, instead. He never minded having his picture taken. He liked to look at the photos. Study them. Unfortunately, a lot of her photographs were underexposed, which made it hard to see the images when yellowed. The mid-century film did that. It corroded before fading.

His mother took most of her pictures from afar. Centered. She also had the habit of posing her subjects. Such as the family holiday portraits framed by the picture window taken with her Kodak Instamatic with a cube flash, four at a time. She had a disk camera for a while, but it broke. There were some Polaroids, though. That was a short phase of his mother’s photog history. She did not trust the mysteriousness of the instant process. She ended up giving him the camera. The few Polaroids he took, he hid in his top drawer.

He then explained that no matter what camera she used, each of her photographs marked a milestone. She snapped the major and minor moments of his youth. When he lost his first tooth, the Boy Scout jamboree, or when he won that hockey trophy. He was always late for the bus on the first day of school because she took too long snapping pictures of him standing next to the tree in the front yard. She did so each year until he was a senior. This way she captured his stages of growth, against a growing tree.

She continued snapping and documenting his transition to manhood. Braces on. Braces off. Girlfriends. Football games. Prom. Graduation. More girlfriends. Then there was the staged photo of him ready to jump into his packed Dodge pointed in the direction of college.

She always snapped two or three of the same picture, just in case. She kept them all. Even the bad ones. He further explained, that after being developed at the Walgreens, the only store she trusted, his mother carefully cataloged every photo in yearly albums. They were big tacky books she lined by year along the mantel. They mimicked old leather-bound volumes, the kind of books thick enough to document legendary lives. He was a legend in her life. Her cataloging continued until the day she died.

He was quick to point out that the middle section of his life was chronicled by his wife, the last girlfriend. The one who stayed. She liked to think she was a spontaneous photographer. Sneaking up behind with her Canon and yelling surprise, then snap, no one’s eyes were ever open. Her pictures were of the parties in their apartment, in the starter home, then the big house, the one with the yard and the barbecue.

She was picky with her pictures. Her photo albums were stingy. She selected what she believed was the best photograph out of the hundred she took, then placed that single picture on a single page in a skinny album. It was her hobby, one of many; scrapbooking. His wife hosted parties, construction paper and stickers took over the kitchen, he explained.

His mother came to the parties, too, bringing her photos along. She only ever made one scrapbook page. She framed it, for the rec room.

He found his wife’s albums frivolous and flouncy. Girlish. She liked to embellish the fabric covers with lace. He did not know there were so many colors of lace, along with rickrack, she used rickrack. And rhinestones. Nonetheless, he noticed that he began to fall to the background in his wife’s photo albums. Because the foreground was taken over by babies. A girl. Then a boy. Two kids turning from toddlers to teenagers within snapshots of their cartoon-themed parties, big milestones, important moments like Halloween. He pointed out that those were his grilling years. Picture after picture, she caught him in an apron. The chronicling continued until the day she left. She left him for another man. A better man, bigger, he was a big man, fat. He should have known. The guy was in the background, too.

His daughter caught the photo bug. She snapped. Everything. Instant. She filtered and cropped each pic and then posted them in digitized albums. Thumbnails lined up on a dashboard, at least that is how she described it. Twitter. Pinterest. Instagram. Her wedding had its own web page. She set him up a Facebook page, so he could visit hers to look at the photographs in real time. He never posted on his page. But, when he visited hers, he could not ignore how old he looked. An old man, and not bad looking, but still old and sitting off to the side and watching the photos taken, posted, and for some reason some disappeared after 24 hours. Like his old Polaroids did, the private ones hidden in an underwear drawer, except those took 54 years to disappear. She tried explaining Snapchat. The concept was beyond him.

He admitted to her that he spends a good part of his day looking at the photographs. His mother’s albums were neatly packed and delivered. They fit perfectly in several liquor boxes. Unlike his wife’s albums. Hers looked like a toddler’s picture book exploded in a plastic tote. He enjoyed leafing through them, nonetheless. Amazing, his daughter printed Polaroid snapshots from a gadget on her cell-phone and stuck them to a bulletin board hanging over his bed. Photos of him visiting with the grandkids. He told her she was a good daughter. She knew he liked spending his time looking at his pictures. She was the one who packed and delivered the photo albums. The boxes and totes took over his tight room at the home.

His daughter visited him on Wednesday mornings, once a week. Together they would pick a couple of albums and she spent an hour paging through them with him. As always, he explained each one to her. He pointed out the obvious, such as when he started to grow a mustache and how it took a decade to thin, along with his hairline. He told his daughter the truth about the fish that got away, that summer he and her grand-dad went boating at the summer house. As he turned the pages he pointed himself out, here, and there. Regaling her on what he was doing in the photograph, and why. How his mother captured such a great shot of him water skiing. On the following page he glided his finger from his smiling face and down her unopened Christmas presents waiting in his lap. How she joked to get him to give a sticky thumbs-up after eating watermelon, or how she laughed at his hair after a ride in the convertible. He ran his hand over his bald head as he closed the album.

He plucked a pink scrapbook, covered with red feathers and lace, from the plastic tub. He laughed, telling the story of how his blushing bride snuck through the back door of the bar to join his bachelor party. There is no way to mask drunk in a photograph. He said he could still hear the Allman Brothers playing on the jukebox shining in the background in the picture. He compared how his mother always framed him well, to those pictures taken by his wife, which were always a mess, yet she got him to smile. He smiled while holding his son, holding a beer, waving a spatula over a grill, holding his daughter’s hand on her way to kindergarten. Always with the same smile, wide. Smiling at her graduation, trying to keep that smile when he gave her away at her wedding, and giving his grandson back to her after the baby wet his lap. All good. Fun, times, frozen in stills.

Dad, you were so photogenic, his daughter said just before rising and excusing herself to the restroom.

His daughter’s phone chimed. The screen lit up. He grabbed it, pulling it closer, to look at the picture, one he never saw before. A selfie of three women. Three smiling faces. His mother. His wife. His daughter. Beautiful women, smiling, giggling, three heads looking at the camera. When did his mother turn gray? When did his wife have short hair? When did his daughter start wearing glasses? In his mind, he always pictured his mother as young, his wife as a bride, and his daughter a student. There they were, all three, smiling at him.

He had no idea when the photo was taken. He might have tried to squeeze in if he was there. But. Such a shame. He never liked to take pictures. He liked to be in them, to look at them, later. Sitting on his bed surrounded by photographs of him, his life, and there was only one picture of the three women who spent that life behind the camera, taking his pictures.

The phone dimmed to black.

He tapped.

The photo returned.

He tapped at the phone again, and again, and again.

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