In the recent film, “One Hour Photo,” camera obsessed Robin Williams explains the origin of the word snapshot. A gentleman coined the word over 100 years ago, who, while photographing birds, mentioned that each picture was clicked off so quickly that it was a “snap” shot. Williams then reflects on the significance that we attach to these photos—those brief moments culled and forever captured from our lives. In a fire or flood, he ruminates, what is it that we seek to save once assured all loved ones are safe from harm? We rescue the family photo albums.
Though the character portrayed by Williams is surely disturbed and deranged, many of his observations pertaining to his obsession-compulsion-family photography are dead on bulls-eye. We seek to capture, he says, the happiest moments—births, birthdays, parties, anniversaries, weddings, graduations, family bar-b-queues, little league games, afternoons at the beach or park or zoo. If strangers were to come upon our photo albums, they would doubtlessly assume our lives were an endless string of happy, joyful, pleasant moments—completely devoid of pathos and trauma. Certainly this would prove out if one uncovered a collection of photos from the bungalow summers of our youth.
Frozen in time, designed to withstand the incessant pull of the calendar, these photographs do indeed say much about us. They declare, at the very least, that we were here, at one time, that we did, in fact, exist, and that we were cared for and held in sufficient regard for someone to take our picture. To judge from the superfluity of shots recorded in those bungalow summers, surely we were loved beyond what we’d ever imagined.
Here is a shot of you sitting on the stoop of the bungalow. You can be no more than three years old. The photo still gleans in its shades of gray—taken on black and white film with an old Brownie camera. You are wearing shorts and a tee shirt. What is that figure on the shirt? Davey Crockett? Howdy Doody? Almost certainly engineered by dotting parents, sitting beside you is a pretty young girl, festooned in print sun dress and strap sandals. She is smiling and slightly squinting in the sunlight. Her hair is pulled back into pigtails, and her right arm is draped across your chubby knee, her hand resting in yours. Was this your first romance? You struggle hard to recall her name.
You are poolside, standing beside your younger brother. He is clowning, mugging for the camera, his face a distortion of what you remember to be a pretty cute little kid. He must be, what, four years old in this photo? You stand in front of your parents—your dad behind you, your mom behind your brother. They are smiling. Your dad appears to be holding his breath, as if he is sucking in his slight gut, compensating for middle age spread. His swimsuit—they called them swim “trunks”—are slightly baggy. Your mom wears a dark one piece. They appear so young. You can’t remember them being that young. Dad’s hair is still dark, and thicker than you can recall. Your mom is so much slimmer than any memory. This photo, taken with a neighbor’s new wonder camera—a Polaroid—is somewhat fading, the colors a bit washed. Still, you can discern that dad’s bathing suit was a shade of green. You can see that you had been suffering with bad sunburn—your arms are lobster-red and you were forced to wear a tee shirt. Nearby you can see a small boy in mid jump, suspended in the air as he jumps into the pool, his feet just cutting the water. You know him. What was his name? David! Yes. How could you forget? From your sixth through your tenth year he was your best friend—the ubiquitous comrade through four or five summers. Whatever had become of him? Then, almost as an afterthought, you again glance at the snapshot and with an icy shudder you recognize that in this photo your parents were at least five years younger than you are at this very moment. Your eyes close. Dad has been gone more than a decade, and mom needs to steady her walking with a prong cane. How could it have moved so quickly?
You remember the sliding pond. As a child, it appeared enormous—the steps threatening and the view from the apex somewhat foreboding. Here in this photo you stand near the top of the steps. Certainly your mom or dad has posed you, because you recall a certain fear of that height, and it is doubtful you’d have stopped long enough for someone to take your picture unless their were an adult nearby to “spot” you. You are wearing blue shorts and a plain white tee shirt, your hair is closely cropped—a crewcut it was called. Your smile is broad and genuine, and your teeth show like a perfect line of small jewels. On your left arm, just above the elbow, is a large bandage. Yes! You remember this. In the summer of your fifth year you were badly burned by an electric grill starter. Old Doc Bloom had made the house call to the colony and fixed you with a foul smelling ointment and a bandage that your mom needed to change twice each day. You wore that bandage for two weeks, and through that time—the hottest two weeks of the summer—you were required to keep the burn dry. So while your friends splashed and frolicked, you could only wade into the shallow end of the pool. They say the body retains no memory of pain, but as you gaze at this photo, some four decades later, you surely recall the burn—the sting, the ointment, the horrible and ugly scar that finally formed. Forty years? My God!
Your dad and his friends stand soldier straight, young and vigorous and virile. Five of them in a row—you can name two of the others: Henry, from the bungalow adjacent yours, and Arnie, your dad’s old pinochle partner. This is another fading Polaroid. The men seem normal enough—another typical Saturday evening in the casino—except for one small item. They sport heavy face make-up and women’s clothing. One man, whose name you cannot recall, though the face is somehow familiar, is dressed in a flowing white wedding gown, and his belly protrudes, a large pillow creating the image of pregnancy. Your dad wears a loud red flowered print dress. His bosom—made from either oranges, or grapefruits, or wads of tissue—heaves and strains against the fabric. His cheeks are crimson with rouge, and his head is covered with a ridiculous blonde Marilyn Monroe type wig. His compatriots are similarly decked out—no threat they to the Andrews sisters, or even the “-lee sisters”—ugly, homely and beastly. They were costumed, you assume, for the traditional “mock marriage.” The women dressed as men, and the men dressed as women. The marriage script, and the Rabbi’s speech, was filled with off color jokes—loads of sexual innuendo—and everyone had drank so much that without these photographs (and, in later years, video tapes), most would retain no recollection whatsoever of the evening’s festivities. But this snapshot, a frozen moment from 1958, or 1960, or maybe even ’62, testifies that these times did occur—that in that summer, at that colony, on Saturday nights, for your parents, and their friends, there was laughter and joking, merriment and fun—enough to last a lifetime.