I try to hold onto things. I collect ticket stubs and bobble-head dolls and knick-knacks that live on my radiator in a sort of tableau, and I take pictures of the other ephemera I see or find in a day but can’t keep. I have my mom’s school ID, which is dated not by her glowing smile but by the fact that she is still Mary Danforth—she doesn’t yet have my last name. Once my dad and I visited the rink he played college hockey in, and on the wall of team pictures I found him wearing the well-fitting number 19 jersey, a proud smile and an untamed mane—I snapped a close-up and now it’s the one that pops up when he calls. My parents went to college in different places and at different times, but they both had the nickname Mad Dog. For my mom, it was a play on her initials and her amiable nature. My dad got the nickname because he was the teammate most resembling a mad dog.
To my knowledge, no photo of me will hang at Yale once I’m gone. I’ll graduate “cupless and ribbonless,” as my grandfather says he did, too. I’ll take my Yale ID with me, the tattered thing that’s left of it. The photo’s scuffed from being swiped for food and for entry and from being regularly thrown out a window four stories high to friends down below who catch it and swipe in and come on up. It’s barely recognizable as me anymore, but it lives in my wallet because somehow it still works. It also accompanies my basic information on Yale Face Book, where all of our ID photos live, unless we specifically choose to remove them. There is no option to replace. Over the last few months I have received a barrage of emails imploring me to get my senior portrait taken with steadily increasing urgency until finally it became my “LAST CHANCE,” and then this week I got a “LAST CHANCE” all over again.
I’ve always taken photos, but I’ve taken more this year than ever, and that includes large number of self-portraits, or selfies. (I left my memory card in the photography computer lab once and when I came back to look for it several days later, the attendant identified me as the owner without my saying a word.) To my eyes I look different in every one. I wish for a definitive portrait. I want someone to shoot me and print me out and hand me to me, telling me, “This is so you.” I want a portrait that captures the way I actually look, no better or worse, and captures my essence so unequivocally that a nickname can be inferred from it. Then I want to take that nickname and go find a wife with the same one and settle into a little house with a drawer in the kitchen full of well-chosen take-out menus and a fridge full of lemonade and a basement teeming with kiddy sports gear and walls covered with flattering portraits of me and my family looking absolutely like ourselves and feeling definitively so, too. In the future, I’ll have committed to who I am and what that looks like, and the routine by which I live every day sun-up to sun-down as the same, immutable self will bring me great pleasure. But for the time being all I have is some thousands of pictures of myself, each with a different nickname. Someday, once I’ve crystallized, I’ll look back through them all and I will take delight in remembering forgotten bits of this, the transitional phase. I will think, boy! was I young back then. I will feel comfortably, gratefully old.
One of Satchel Paige’s rules for staying young was, “Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move,” which I do, religiously. Another: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” This one is harder by far.
I was working on my future, so I met a man for a mid-morning lunch. He told me, “You want to know what ‘dynamic’ looks like—what it feels like.” He was a business professional. I jangled around gently in my seat.
I applied for a job that required four separate personality tests, which I took over the course of two days. What I got in return was an infographic demonstrating my deficit of Dependability and Unlikely Virtues. When I never heard back from them, I looked back over the results and jangled to myself—how unreliably, but predictably virtuous I was back then!
At the Yale School of Art, they say “make” rather than “take” a photograph. It confers originality on the maker, I suppose, defines the craft as creative rather than documentary, as art rather than as scrapbooking. They eschew the work of Ansel Adams, whose awe-inspiring picture of Grand Teton sits prominently on my dresser-top at home; I suppose they find it kitschy, or cliché. At school, I keep most of the photos I’ve taken in a box, but some I hang up in lieu of posters, because I’m scared of dipping into the poster bin and coming up with that same Bob Marley poster you have.
I know I know more now than I once did because now I’m better at spotting clichés. In photography: a daffodil, a wheelbarrow, a barber’s pole, hand-holding. Clichés are familiar and unoriginal. They have been expressed before, because the thing they refer to has been lived before. I am told they should be avoided at all costs.
Traditions take years to make. At our freshman convocation, under the vaulted, mural-adorned ceiling of Woolsey Hall, we stood and waved our white handkerchiefs overhead, left-right-left, like a genteel mass surrender. Then we tucked our hankies in our pockets and kissed our parents goodbye. From a distance it looked just like it had for every other Yale class before us. Traditions are photo opportunities restaged at regular intervals according to the same rules of composition every time. If you took all those pictures and stacked them and used your thumb to flip through them fast, the effect would be one of time-lapse.
Until two weeks ago, I thought the sun set faster on some days than others. I often remark on how quickly it’s gotten dark out, and finally my friends told me, nope, that’s just me. Astrology is difficult to intuit with a blind eye.
A picture is where the thing seen and the way of seeing it come together. A portrait amalgamates the subject and the shooter. The shooter cannot help but reflect his own bearing in the shot. Neither the shooter nor the subject (for he is looking both at and through his eyes) have sufficient remove to read the image for substance.
I’ve always wanted the superpower to x-ray people for nonphysical characteristics. I’d scan someone top to bottom and my contraption would detect their every idiosyncrasy, bias and bent, all the little deposits of influence they’ve incurred, and it would render the summary report with uncanny accuracy and elegance on a transparent slide the size of a poster-board, and I’d hold up mine right on top and see where we overlap and where we don’t, and I’d be that much closer to definitive.