Sunday, November 07, 2004

From the Land of the Midnight Thumb

By which I mean we are now going through the slides we took in Scandinavia, and in too many of them the best looking thing in frame is some part of my hand that got in the way. As for the rest of the space in each photo -- a void of darkness and gloom.

I am not speaking metaphorically here. I mean there's nothing there. One possible excuse is that it rained. A lot. Also, I don't really understand how to work the camera, which is an old-fashioned SLR, pricey and thus imbued with many mechanical frills and possibilities, all of which are capable of shifting the final image just that much further wrong.

All the emptiness! Looking at our pictures, I feel like a priest taking confession from a series of French intellectuals.

In the few pictures that contain at least some information, you have a cap of washed-out grey sky with dark silhouettes of looming shapes beneath. So far our re-experiencing our trip photographically is the opposite of what usually happens. Usually you sit down you look at your pictures you think, "I really did not appreciate what I was seeing at the time. Thank you, Mr. Kodak." Vacation pictures at their best (if that is not a contradiction in terms) are a crutch, you see, a supplement or a footnote. But in the case of our photos this time, our pictures are a kind of homoeopathy, which (as I hardly need to remind you) suggests the tiniest and most infinitesimal amount of something -- the essence of badness -- triggers something very good.

The very absence of content in our pictures is a stimulant to memory. This is what I mean. I push the button on the slide projector. On the wall there is Nothing except a black looming something with a kind of crenellation at the top.

"Russian Orthodox church in Stockholm?" I say.

"Probably the stave church in Norway," my wife replies. "Unless it's that girl on a bike we saw in Copenhagen."

"If so, she seems to be making an obscene gesture," I say.

"I think it's the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki," my wife says.

"In which case that's you making the obscene gesture," I say. (True story. Only place in Helsinki we saw cops.)

Each picture, each terrible picture, encourages us to re-experience the entire trip, sharpening memory, drawing it out of us, providing a Rorschach that teases out of us details we had forgotten.

This won't do for the slide show, though. Through indirections we may be finding directions out as we reexperience our trip through the series of missed opportunities that our photographs represent. But I want to have a slide show! I want to bring a small circle of friends into the warmth of our living room and, well, show off. If you have a handful of nice images -- as few as 60, I would say -- and you imbed them in a sprightly narrative in which every architectural marvel is juxtaposed with some embarrassing anecdote involving food or currency exchange, I think your friends forgive you. And perhaps they learn a little something?

Did you know that "bjorn" is Swedish for bear? See that brown splotch there next to what looks like a sock? That's a bear, or, as the Swedes would say:

A bjorn.

Repeat it as if this were a Monty Python sketch.

A bjorn.

Personally, I always like going to people's slide shows. We have some friends who are talented amateur photographers. Some of them go interesting places, and I like a bit of a travelogue. It's a big world, you know. And at a slide show, usually there are drinks and food, sometimes a buffet even because the wise host for a slide show understands exactly who is doing whom the favor and adjusts the catering accordingly.

Our friend Jefferson says I am living in a dream world. He says people despise slide shows. He's never been to a decent one or known anyone -- other than us, and he thinks we are lying -- who enjoys that devil's brew of botched photos and incoherent narrative.

I think he is saying that finally a slide show is a power trip (and he doesn't mean a Power Point trip) in which the conventions of acquaintanceship demand an acquiescence to illusions of competence when it comes to picture taking and storytelling.

And I say: Okay. I can live with that.

Consider this your invitation to Eyes Wide Shut: A Long Evening's Journey into the Scandinavian Night with the Robertson Family.

Details to follow. You can run, but you can't hide.

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