I love photographs. What I love most about them is how they capture a moment. Moments go by so quickly, children grow up, people move away, places change. It’s nice to have the chance to revisit them without having to depend on memory, which can be so unreliable. Photos also allow us to share reminiscences with folks who weren’t there when they were taken, and can do that even across the generations, which is a real gift. And sometimes photos allow us to see something out of our view, like a bald spot or a photo-bomber, or maybe even something more important.
Over the years I’ve not only taken thousands of photos, I’ve also repaired many of the old ones I inherited from my family. I like doing that, because it allows me to see back to a time before my time. Is that handsome young man with his suit coat slung over his shoulder my father? Did my mother really make that face? Wow, my grandmother is wearing round framed “John Lennon” glasses! Every picture is a discovery–a glimpse of someone I never had the chance to meet, or a vision of somebody’s younger self.
Of the many photos I’ve restored, one small snapshot in sepia tones and cracked with age is particularly meaningful to me. I chose to work on it because of the subject – my mother at age two. In the picture she is holding her favorite doll, Evelyn, and leaning out the window of a parked 1932 Chevrolet.
Before I began the repair work, I scanned the photo, and enlarged it so I could get a better view. As the photo appeared on the screen, details emerged that had not been visible earlier. The first thing I noticed was that the lighter marks in the background, which were not discernible in the smaller version, were actually tombstones. The car was parked in a cemetery.
Then, as I perused its enlarged surface, something else appeared that I had not seen – my grandmother and my aunt! Nana was in the passenger seat with her hands around my mother’s waist, raising her up and out the window, and my rather tall aunt was looking from behind and smiling. In the smaller image, they just looked like shading in the car’s interior. But there they were!
Inspired by that discovery, I continued to work, removing scratches on the surface and restoring several cracks. Then I zoomed out to get a better perspective on the repair. I was not expecting to see anything new, but there was another surprise! In the now restored surface of the photo was a reflection of my grandfather on the side of the car, camera raised to take the picture. Apparently, they had gone together as a family to pay their respects to loved ones at Canarsie Cemetery in Brooklyn where several of my ancestors are buried. In the smaller photo, all I could see was my mom playing in a really cool antique car. It was not until I was able to see the larger picture, remove the impediments and get some perspective that the story began to unfold. Which makes me wonder, if we did that with other pictures, what might become apparent which we otherwise would have missed?
Having recently celebrated Easter, albeit in a strange stay-at-home DIY way this year, one picture that comes to mind is another that, if they had had the technology to take it back then, would have also been taken in a graveyard–a picture of Jesus’ tomb. In its small snapshot form, it likely would tell the story we would expect:
Behind this enormous stone is the final resting place of a man many had hoped was the Messiah. In the end, he turned out to be just another man whose death was lonely and gruesome.
But if we actually had such a picture and could do with it what I did with my family photo, what might we have seen? What would have become visible as it was enlarged? In that place of death, would we have then been able to discern those unseen hands that were present raising Jesus up to newness of life? Would we have been able to see the reflection of his heavenly Father, who even through death, never took his eyes off his child? I wonder what we might have appeared had we been able to see the bigger picture.
Well, we can, sort of… The gospels tell us about that bigger picture, allowing us to stand back and see how the events of Good Friday unfolded into Easter – how in that graveyard there was more of a story than first met the eye. Surprise! This is not a place of death; it is a place where death will be no more. Put away that too small image in your mind’s eye and come face to face with the IMAX film of the ages!
Now I know that, because of the pandemic, many of us are feeling like we, too, are standing in a place of death. We are cut off from friends and extended family. We are fearful for our livelihood and our future. We unnaturally shrink back from those with whom we must come in contact, as if our life depends on it, and likely it does. Being separated from those we love, the work that is so familiar and the normalcy of the life to which we were accustomed is painful. For others who are struggling to cope with the illness itself and the loss of those they hold most dear, it is an even crueler reality. It is like we are living a perpetual Good Friday with no vision of Easter to help us make sense of it.
This is a tough place, and no one is exempt. So, perhaps, in this moment, the best we can do is keep an eye out for what appeared unexpectedly in my family photo: Those who, out of love, continue to lift us up, and reflections of the Father who is constantly watching over us. Even a glimpse of these will help us know we are not alone, and that my friends, in this uncertain moment, is precious.
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