Still

After college, I worked in a preschool before heading out to grad school. Mostly, I worked with an autistic little boy. I took a really cute photograph of him at school one day. He was happy and laughing and looking directly at the camera. I babysat for him on the side. At his house, his mother pointed out the last photo they had of him looking at the camera, taken when he was about a year-and-a-half old, right before he stopped looking. It was displayed on the piano. Next to it was the photo I gave them. I still remember that almost two decades later.

I have always been obsessed with taking pictures. Probably this is due to my nostalgic streak. Photography is my—our—only chance of holding onto what is impossible to keep, of even sort of grasping time. It’s no wonder my favorite line of Virginia Woolf—since a little before working at the preschool and way before McDiesel—is Mrs. Ramsay’s “Life stand still here.” Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf’s paragon of Motherhood, is at the beach. Her family and friends are there. She’s orchestrated everything—the people, the moment—just right. Everything –right then–is good.

McDiesel’s big personality makes him a model subject. He alternately hams it up and refuses to cooperate. Either way, photos provide a pretty accurate record of who he is as a little kid: folded arms and stormcloud face in the middle of a well-dressed family portrait (because not cooperating doesn’t mean abstaining; it means ruining the picture) or massive smile that takes over the entire frame and eclipses everything else. Even with my expensive and fast shutter speed, there is no in between. Just like McDiesel himself. Full tilt. Life (for him, with him) does not stand still. (It didn’t for Mrs. Ramsay, either, of course.)

Can I trace McD’s ADHD in the visual record? Can I, too, point to a defining megapixel moment? Some corner of a photo, some blurred movement? Baby pictures where he’s straining out of our protective arms, toddler pictures where he’s confidently mid-stride, preK Christmas card picture where he’s pushing his big brother over (again)? Flipping through pictures, walking down the hall of framed prints, scrolling through iPhoto: every detail speaks Movement. Barely restrained, about to break free. The pictures—in which McD is (finally!) captured and held and permanent—tell the story. Like one day a baby boy looked at the camera; the next day he did not.

My newest favorite shots come from my sister’s wedding. Custom bow tie, navy blazer. I couldn’t have done more or orchestrated it better. The professional photographer didn’t stand a chance. But it didn’t matter. McD in bow tie and blazer jumping  from the sea wall over and over so that I can catch him on camera in mid-air in superhero poses. “Like this! Like this!” Life stand still here!

These are the shots I can point to. These tell his story. Always moving—defying the purpose of photography (as he defies so much else) to keep a moment, a subject still, frozen, not moving as time charges ahead. Moving, moving, always moving. Arms out, hands splayed, hair straight up, knees bent, feet off the ground. Not a still life at all.

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