Recently, while looking through the thousands of photos I took during my two weeks in France, I realized that the one I liked the most was actually just a simple iPhone shot of a sugar packet against a red cafe table:
A highly designed, highly tiny, and highly angular little block of Italian sucrose!
Looking back it at now, it evokes a string of very strong sense memories: the feeling of the hard little packet — slightly granular — in my hand, my fingers running along the edges; the bright morning sun on the smooth red table; the smell of my espresso; the view across the busy French street; the weight of my friend’s body in the chair next to mine while bits of conversation floated to hang in the air between us. There’s something more tangible about this shot than there is about the hundreds I took of tower views, river scenes, cobblestone lanes, and statues.
(Admittedly, the other reason I love this shot is for its simplicity: just an intricately designed sugar packet (look at how pretty it is!) with some sharp lines, a big old knockout shadow, and my favorite color combination: red and blue.)
I take a lot of photos like this. They feel more personal; like a poem or a diary entry. And glancing at one always seems to conjure up an intense memory of the surroundings, no matter how abstracted the image itself may be from its original setting.
A door knocker (heurtoir) in Toulouse, where there were tiny, cryptic little hands all over the city. My blurry reflection is there, too. In the second, I was struck by the intense, angular typography on a gas cover as I walked through Paris. It reminded me of Metropolis.
They feel like secrets, little discoveries, tiny victories.
A tiny crab shell I found on the beach on a foggy evening, walking along the beach in Crescent City, CA, with my father. Looking at this, I still remember the tiny thrill of turning it over and seeing its intricate, bright purple interior.
I don’t know that these having much staying power. When I look back on old photos from my parents’ era, the ones I care about, that seem the most interesting, are the ones of the people in their lives.
These little figment shots are different, though. I think what may appeal to me is that, with small-scale, intimate shots like these, I have a hope of capturing a moment almost exactly the way that I saw it. A beautiful sunset, a misty lake, or an enormous mountain thrown into sharp relief by the sun will never look the same on film (or in pixels). That’s part of the reason I’ve shied away from landscape photography (other than the really atmospheric, mysterious kind) in the past — I know it’s never going to look the way I want it to, so I’ve decided to just be content with being there.
A plate of sesame cookies on the table during a tea break with a Vietnamese friends in Hue, Vietnam, and a dinosaur casting a long shadow on my kitchen counter.
Ultimately, then, I think my love of these is related more to my desire to firmly and permanently grasp something beautiful. They’re like haikus or couplets, neat and tied up in a little package. The only way to hold onto a minute or two of your life is by grabbing something small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.