The Moments Before

In our family, no Christmas season went by—at least when our four children were still children—without the obligatory group portrait of them in the holiday outfits their mom had created for them.

“The Moments Before” captures our four children on some long ago Christmas season evening, standing in age rank order, each wearing some matching—always matching—and vaguely Germanic (or is it Swiss?) looking outfit.

Some photographs and I think this is one of them, capture not a singular ‘decisive moment’, but rather a few decisive ‘moments’. Such photographs convey what happened in the moments just before or just after the camera’s shutter opened and closed. Eddie Adams’ infamous “Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief” comes to mind. Such photographs are cortex videos—the video plays in the mind; the photograph is merely that video on Pause.

Traditional portraits, whether of an individual or of a group, usually are staged and capture only the moment of the shutter’s blink. What went on before or after that blink is rarely conveyed. But ‘The Moments Before’ isn’t a traditional portrait. This photograph is definitely not staged but it is not candid either; it is a cortex video of the staging process. When I press the mental Play button, I see our children respond to the threats of the stage director (Mom!) and momentarily get their act together. Then of course my mind’s eye sees the video’s closing scene—the perfect Christmas portrait of perfectly happy and perfectly behaved children.

What compelled me to take this image? I can’t honestly recall. It might have been an impulsive act to capture a truth about our family. That is not to say that the image that followed—the traditional Christmas portrait of my four children smiling into the camera—was a complete falsehood. My kids were happy and they liked wearing the holiday outfits their mother created for them—at least I like to think so. But our traditional holiday portraits are not completely honest either. That perfect portrait—that one where every child has a nice smile, is looking at the camera, has hair the way mom combed it and hands in place rather than punching a sibling, is not a totally honest reflection of our young family life. In reality the process of getting to that split second of perfection was usually a little messy.

Was all of that going through my mind when I closed the shutter on “The Moments Before”? I doubt it, but who knows? Just as likely I thought it was a funny scene.

There is the oldest, Susan, looking askance at her ne’er do well brothers – always causing trouble those two. Sara asking Dad, “Why are you taking this picture?” Paul, clearly saying: “Who me? It wasn’t me, it was Scott”. And the youngest Scott, saying: “I wonder when I can go back to playing with the toy in my hand?” And of course, this photograph’s “punctum” for me, the hand of SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED.

In any case there is no doubt why ‘The Moments Before’ is a “keeper” for my family. It evokes a laugh every time we get together for a family slide show. It is the slide show’s comic relief, the humorous reality break.

This entry was posted in Essays.

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