I recently learned that the first rule of improv comedy is "Yes, And." The idea is that a successful performer must always say "yes" to another's contribution and then to add something—"and"—of his or her own, thereby strengthening the collaboration and creating a unique experience for the audience.
Honestly, I have little to no interest in improv comedy. It's fine, and I appreciate many of the talented performers who've emerged from that scene, but improv comedy is neither my thing nor a likely subject for a Gamut. As a habitual sayer of "No," however, I'm fascinated by this "Yes, And" business.
Truth be told, in recent years I've, on random occasions, forced myself to voice agreement even when my gut-bound naysayer screams, "Shut it down!" Sometimes, like when the endless parade of journalism majors asked to interview me and photograph our storefront semester after semester, it was just good business; other times, though, I found that questioning the curmudgeon shut-in at my soul's root can lead to unexpected, occasionally delightful, experiences. More "Why Not?" than "Yes, And," but the principle is similar.
All of this explains why I consented to a photojournalist's request to follow my family around for a few days despite a deep, almost pathological, distaste for the experience of being photographed.
Actually, the story starts months earlier, when a couple of family friends, one a professional photographer who's earned considerable recognition for his photographs of musicians, brought 40-something broiler chickens to our house for a hands-on lesson in harvesting home-grown poultry. Following the experience—one of the filthier tasks a person can engage the physical self in—the photographer hefted a large-format camera from the trunk of his car and asked if he could make a family portrait of us, his way of expressing gratitude. My wife and I looked at each other, each inventorying the other's far-beyond-grimy clothes, face, hair and said, "Why Not?"
So when our county extension agent asked if our three-generation family farm might be open to hosting a shutterbug for a stretch of time, part of a city-wide workshop for aspiring photojournalists, we already knew we could say yes, and that's what we did.
Do I have to tell you that it's a strange experience, being shadowed by a camera-wielding stranger for days on end? Doing chores—click. Fixing dinner—click. Drinking a beer, walking down the driveway, sweeping the floor—click, click, click. But while initially unsettling, we quickly came to see the inestimable value of the experience. My children, now 4, 7 and 11, will someday soon be adult-sized people, moving around in the world doing adult-sized things, and my wife and I will pine for the days when their miniature selves lived with us and banged on out-of-tune string instruments downstairs while dad attempted to write one floor up (true story). And in these wistful moments, we'll reach for the images, touch these few days, and remember what life was like then.
It's powerful and kind of unbelievable that, despite the unyielding barrage of imagery encountered every waking hour of our days, a solitary image still has the power to move us. That the picture I'm looking at now, my middle daughter supine in a hammock with her favorite chicken cradled in her arms, can fill me with joy and pride and a creeping nostalgia for a week-old moment as I'm rushed forward in time to see myself looking back to almost-now through this photograph—that's pretty amazing, right?
Visiting the writings of photography's early days, one encounters revelations that, against seemingly insurmountable odds, still ring true in the age of selfie sticks, corporate headshots and social media feeds. "We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again," mid-century photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said in his book, “The Decisive Moment.”
It's arguable the extent to which photography actually captures the vanishing thing, but a picture definitely creates an observation deck for viewers, a vantage point where memory and contemporary feelings commingle for a new, largely subjective experience. In “Camera Lucida,” writer Roland Barthes comments on this subjectivity by recounting an image of his deceased mother that moved him deeply, saying of it, "It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture." Maybe this is true, maybe not—while I'd never expect to experience Barthes' emotions looking at the photograph, I can't say I'd feel indifferent. I literally can't say that, because Barthes never lets the reader see the image in question.
So these were some of the thoughts jangling around in my subconscious as the photojournalist trailed us around the house and into town, me pondering what it really meant for her to fill SD cards with hundreds of frozen microseconds lifted from our life. And, as her presence was actually just one piece of a larger project—the documentation of a community we're just now beginning to feel a part of—I was forced to consider the overall historical value of capturing a place at a certain time. The picture on my refrigerator of a large family, fronted by a swollen-bellied, overall-wearing "Pa" figure and standing in the front yard of my house circa 1910, is a constant reminder that the imagery and the history of a place are indelibly tied together.
I've yet to receive the entire bulk of the photojournalist's pictures from her days on the farm, though I know a disk will arrive in the mail soon. The images I've seen have been both familiar and refreshingly strange, my everyday life glimpsed from an angle I've never really seen. My family's facial expressions as we operate semi-unaware of the camera (you do kind of forget after a while) are enough to make my breath catch in wonder.
But I did get that large-format photograph back, and it is, as expected, absolutely gorgeous. That's what I told my friend too, when we stood in his basement studio and he presented it to us.
"I don't know about gorgeous," he said, "but it's certainly a moment in time." He then advised us to stick the print in a blanket drawer and pull it out in ten years to wonder over the changes we've experienced in the intervening decade. We won't do that—the portrait will hang on the most conspicuous wall of our dining room—but I appreciated the idea, the same idea I catch a glimpse of looking at my baby girl in a hammock: a life lesson to mind the moment I'm in because it vanishes continually.
"Yes, And." "Why Not?" Delightful things can happen when you don't say "No."