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The sun also rises, you know | Chuck's World


Last updated 5/3/2017 at Noon

Nicéphore Niépce isn’t a household name, and frankly, his parents didn’t do him any favors in that department. Just typing his name is exhausting.

But he was a brilliant scientist and deserves to be remembered, if only for this one accomplishment: One day in 1822, he invented photography.

That may be earlier than you thought. It was earlier than I thought. Just from the perspective of our country, 1822 was a long time ago. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were still alive. Abraham Lincoln was 13. The Denny Party was still 30 years away from landing at Alki when this French scientist dissolved some bitumen in lavender oil, spread a thin coat on a flat plate of glass or possibly stone, placed a printed image on top of it and set the whole contraption out in direct sunlight.

What he ended up with was a plate with a copy of the image on it, created by light. If this sounds like something out of “The Flintstones,” that’s what it sounds like to me, too. If it reminds you of a photocopy, that’s exactly what it was, but the process was photographic, and he was the first.

Niépce also invented the combustion engine, now that I think of it. That’s right. Pictures and cars, this one guy. I’m saying I think the name is holding him back, that’s all.

This has always fascinated me about photography, its elevation from pure science into an art form for all of us. Art that can tell stories, evoke connections and emotions, move and delight us.

And then there are pictures of sunsets, and dogs. Lots of dogs and sunsets. I’m not sure what to call that.

But we all do it, we’ve been doing it for nearly 200 years, and now we do it all the time.

We’re all aware of what’s happened in the past decade or so. We live in the Age of Images; it’s estimated that over a trillion photos will be taken this year, most of them with our phones. That’s roughly one picture every other day for each person on the planet. That’s a lot of sunsets.

I think we also can assume that most of these photos don’t rise to the level of artistic expression, as subjective as that is. Cameras are as ubiquitous as car keys, and digital photography eliminates the cost and hassle of film for everyday use. So we use them every day, and the law of large numbers suggests that these all average out to an unremarkable, pedestrian photo that might or might not include a dog.

I fall into the pedestrian category. Sometimes I’m an actual pedestrian, too, but in any case I have no particular gift. I admire photographs that inspire an emotional response on my part, and I know what I like; I just can’t reproduce it, any more than I can play a Chopin étude just because I read music and have a piano. Even sunsets come out as ordinary.

But there are happy accidents, and sometimes just quantity will surprise me with quality. Take enough pictures of a 3-year-old at play, for example, and amid the busyness and blur one might capture a moment that suddenly seems special.

Again, I speak from experience. I’m now a grandfather, doing my best to maintain a long-distance presence, partly by preserving my visits with this constantly changing, now 3-year-old boy by taking a bazillion pictures. Most of these exist in digital form only, something for me to look at and remember. I share some of these with my wife and mother, but mostly they’re for me.

And last week, on a quick trip to visit with my grandson and my daughter, I got lucky.

This boy is now at an age where I don’t want to be watching through a lens, so I took far fewer photos. One day, though, we went to a playground, and as I watched him wander all over a large climbing toy, I grabbed my phone and waited for a good moment.

He’d just gone down a winding slide. I snapped a picture and then forgot about it, but now I look at that photo and see multitudes.

He was on all fours at the bottom, a crouching tiger in a jungle gym. When I look long enough, the day disappears and I see only the moment. I imagine I can see his whole heritage, my daughter’s iron will and stubborn confidence tempered by her husband’s sweet calm, all of it mixed together and set dancing across their child’s features.

The joys that come with being a parent and grandparent are obvious and understandable. There are more serious considerations, at least for me: I look at this child and see where he’s going, knowing I can’t come along. There’s a good chance he will outlive me by half a century, and while I don’t dwell on that I can’t help acknowledging our limited time together. So I look at the picture a lot.

It’s a great picture. He’s looking toward me, wearing an expression that strikes me as satisfied, proud of himself, basking in his autonomy, asking for more. He’s aware of the old guy with the camera, but he’s thinking of something else.

And on closer examination he’s not, in fact, looking at me. He’s looking past me, outward and ahead, seeing nothing but future, and of course he is.


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