Monday, August 07, 2006

Honoring the Imago Dei

What becomes of all the old family photos that get lost or that disappear into attics, dusty book bins, and other tide pools of our lives? Where do they go -- are they remembered at all?

Last Month's Utne Reader featured an article about archiving "found photos" -- older family photographs where the original owners have been lost. These photos are found in flea markets, antique shops, estate sales. They whisper mystery to us -- who were these people? What were the cadences of their lives? What has become of their lineage?

One such archive is Look At Me, a project of artist and designer Frederic Bonn. Bonn and a friend were walking in Paris in 1998 when they found a bundle of old photos lying in the street. Something crackled in his mind -- perhaps fascination with the delicate touch of these amateur photographers, perhaps an attraction to the untrained artistry. Whatever his motivation, he began collecting found photos and displaying them on his website (all the photos I display here come from his collection)

The article in the Utne Reader suggests that part of the appeal of found photos lies in their artistic merit: "One reason for critics' and curators' appreciation with anonymous forms of photography is the challenge it poses to the idea that only pictures by celebrated photographers deserve study. The unschooled photographer can produce images every bit as engaging, both aesthetically and in content, as anything taken by widely exhibited professional. More broadly, these unofficial images answer a persistent need to believe that photographs can still capture some essential, unvarnished truth about the subject. Even before the digital era, professional photographers were often shown to have manipulated images that might appear to represent actuality; amateur photographers can still be given the benefit of the doubt. Their directness, ineptitude, and lack of artiface become signs of reliability."

OK, perhaps that quote is overblown. Now with everybody sharing their photos on Flickr, the line between amateur and professional has blurred. Trendwatching's designation of this new movment is called Generation C (this article is a must read). Now we're all creative content producers -- everyone is an artist, everyone has a voice. The untrained simplicity that the Utne Reader article lauds is quickly disappearing. Hence the fascination with photos from the pre-digital era -- they do bespeak a plainness and straightforwardness that sounds a note within us. But why?

I suggest these old photos tickle our interest because we recognize something of the imago dei - the image of God. Genesis tells us that every human being bears the image of God. That is what makes us unique and awesome and glorious -- why the dirtiest street beggar carries the weight of glory about him -- why the most handicapped of children deserves honor and a cherished place -- why our elderly are not disposable, but valuable members of our culture. There is something special, mysterious, glorious, and holy about the image of God that we all bear (which makes our sinfulness all the more tragic -- but that is a discussion for another time).

The article's author writes "Taken by family and friends to celebrate their subjects, these pictures were a way of declaring: You are important, you matter to me, this moment was significant and we should remember it. And yet the pictures' warm intentions eventually become undone by events. They become relics that - once lost, now reappearing in a stranger's collection -- testify to life's fragility." Fair enough, and true enough. But that's not the end of the story -- why would a stranger be interested in these photos if that were the end. They also testify to the truth of Psalm 139: "For you created my inmost being: you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be."

Soli Deo Gloria