A Field Guide to Photographing Your Father

There is a box of old photographs under my bed. Toned black-and-white or sepia brown with names, dates, places scribbled illegibly on the back, they age invisibly. They are originals. Taken by my grandmother or some uncle, they wait to be forgotten and remembered then revisited and forgotten once more, generation after generation. Since virtually every photo I’ve taken in my millennial life has been on a digital camera, I have the luxury of saving them to my hard drive where they remain in perfect condition, albeit buried digitally beneath Internet memes I downloaded in 2007 and glitchy files serving as evidence of the summer I attempted pirating music. Scrolling through the portraits of the Photographer as a Young Me (sloppy bangs, unsure arms, straight legs), I discovered a number of photographs I had taken of my father on our trip to Las Vegas four years ago, punctuated by wide-angle Western landscapes and blurry shots of the Strip’s shining lights. I decided to organize a little Field Guide, a resource for intrepid sons (or daughters) that choose to set out and record for posterity the embarrassment and enlightenment that is father-son bonding time.

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Part I: The Candid

As we all know, candid photographs are the best photographs. Nothing in this world contains as much truth and magic as the candid photograph of someone you love living life unaware of the lens. In a documentary sense, videos capture more—action, reaction, time itself—but the frozen space of the photograph allows for impression and suggestion. You see what’s there, and you ask, “But what else?” Videos are temporal: they start and they end. But the stillness and eternity of the photograph leaves the space around its frame full of emotional resonance, ghosts of the recorded memory burned into the brain like light into film.

When capturing the Father in a candid, it is best to get him looking at things. Fathers have a remarkable ability to look. They can look into your eyes and smell trouble. They look at your mother and forever affect your understanding of and subsequent attempts at committed relationships. They look into a dog’s eyes and speak in the nonverbal, instinctual language of alpha-male. The powers of a focused gaze have driven artistic composition since the Renaissance. Just ask Michelangelo: Fathers do it particularly well.

My father likes to look at big things and small things. He likes to look at long landscaped horizons, at mountains looming large in the distance or trees in a valley, and at the generational striations in the rock warts of the West that tell the story of Time itself. He likes to look at details, too. Dragonfly wings and the stamen of wildflowers or poems on paper. On our trip, he carried around a pocket-sized magnifying glass, staring into the crystals of the Death Valley Salt Flats.

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He used to be a geologist somewhere out here, searching for iron ore and cinnabar, living in a trailer with the girl he brought with him from New York City and almost married—way before he met my mother. He told me the story once, maybe on this trip or maybe another, and it fills the space beyond the sky. Here he is looking big at Zion National Park in Utah:

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And remember: though your subjective, point-of-view shot from behind may be nice—such that only the Father’s back or head is visible (as above)—when you look back at the photos you’ve taken, what matters more to you, as the Photographer: the composition? or the look on the Father’s face as he gazes at something greater than himself? Awe-struck by the sheer might and traceable eternity of God’s Green Earth, or confused and overwhelmed by the electric temptation that is the Las Vegas strip. I have a sub-collection of poorly composed, underexposed photos of Las Vegas landmark-replicas. My father’s face stares out, across the street, from beneath the glow of an Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty whose forced perspective and false proportions collapse with the scale of my father’s head.

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The over-stimulation of purpose-built places like Las Vegas, Times Square and the Santa Monica Pier often consumes my father to the point of discomfort. At 72, he’s older than most of my friends’ fathers, and he prefers the wilderness to the Wal-Mart culture of Bigger, Cheaper!, LOUDER, *brighter*. He shops for groceries at Whole Foods, and even then, he stays away from Annie’s Mac & Cheese, preferring instead a forager’s diet of dried mango slices and mixed nuts.

I get hungry sometimes when I’m with my father. I want to see more, do more: whatever’s marked as a “Must-See.” His low tolerance for spectacle opposes my short attention span; we exhaust each other. I get bored of his measured pace and his distaste for anything too touristy, and he groans through the bus tours and pricey dinners. As I look through these photos of rock after rock, mountain after mountain, I forget that boredom drove me to take that photo of him, kowtowed to the salty Earth, peering through his looking glass. Though we shared these alternating moments of feigned interest, we were still together, always together.

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Part II: The Posed

Of course, the classic family vacation photograph is the contrived, toothy shot featuring some Point of Interest or Scenic Overlook. These photos serve more to capture the place and the people than the emotion, but sometimes the emotion captured in the picture doesn’t match that of the person, which, when remembered, colors the trip with reality years later.

For the Father, a posed photograph is often the weakest choice; at least, the obviously posed. The cheesy—SMILE!—veils the essence of the moment, and Fathers are especially weak when it comes to faking a smile. They’re usually pretty real about how pleased they are at any given time, and if you try to force a smile from one in the wild, the result won’t resonate as timelessly and truthfully as the candid.

On our trip to Las Vegas, my father was missing a tooth. I hated it. He didn’t have time, or really care, to have it capped before the trip, and, as an accessory to his layered, sock-and-sandal wardrobe and wild white hair, made him look like one of those guys you see wandering the sidewalk, mumbling to himself; not threatening,
just eccentric.

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This is my father. Unnatural pose, uncomfortable smile, gaping hole in the front of his mouth. This is not to say all posed Father pictures come out as unfortunate as this one, however. Even poorly posed photos of the Father say something, and they make a fitting addition to any album. Pictures of the Father staged for composition or portrait’s sake can reveal something even more beautiful than the candid. Take, for example, this photo taken from the backseat of our non-smoking rental car in a Venice Beach parking lot.

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My father smoked out this window anyway, resting and feeling the soft sea breeze on his weathered face.

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Part III: The Group Shot

The Group Shot is another family classic, a subset of the Posed. As the Photographer, organizing a group shot of the Father and co. can seem like a daunting task: too many bodies to wrangle while simultaneously adjusting the camera settings in service of your intended aesthetic. It’s important to have the Father on your side in these cases, as his authority can pull the group into tighter, 12-megapixel orbit—especially if you dare to try anything more complicated than the classic “Cheese on 3!”

However, in the case of the Father acting like the child, as some fathers are apt to do, you might encounter difficulty in obtaining the perfect group shot. Relax. Do your best, and the result, even when it falls short of your original vision, will age fondly with posterity Here we are at a hibachi restaurant on my Uncle’s birthday:

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Notice the blank smile on my father’s face, and his distracted wife Mieko (the wife after my mother) looking at the cake just out of frame. My father enjoys being the center of attention, neglecting the occasion of his brother’s birthday. In this instance, the Photographer ceded his duties to the waitress—a common and appropriate substitute, despite having less authority in this context than “Photographer” or “Father.”

There are many pictures like this in my collection: blank smiles at a birthday restaurant. Birthdays, themselves forced celebrations of our march toward old age and the End, have never photographed well in my family. I am not particularly fond of them. My father and I prefer spontaneous adventures, surprise moments, and natural gatherings, like when his side of the family gathered at that same Uncle’s house in Tucson for a week last year.

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Part IV: The Archival Process

In the Digital Age, photographs saved to hard drives no longer fade or wear at the corners or tear or burn or get lost. But the people in them do. I have photos of my great-grandfather and grandmother, in varying stages of decay. They have both passed away. The most important thing to remember as the Father-Photographer is that each picture you take will be true of only the moment it was taken. The Father’s hair will grey; he might end up in a wheelchair, or a hospital bed. He will wrinkle. The Father I see in photos from the 1960s is not my father, but a young man my own age—gone now, and changed from the incarnation captured on film decades ago. Today, he is my father. But one day, even that white-headed, smiling, gap-toothed Father will be someone’s Great-Grandfather.

The secret to photographing the Father in the field is not found in the principles of conventional composition, as National Geographic’s Ultimate Field Guide to Photography put it: “When photographing your father fishing, frame the picture with the lake in the background—not the car parked next to the lake.[1]” Forget that. Put the car in the picture because one day you won’t have that car anymore, and one day your Father will be a ghost composed only of those pictures you took on your trip to Las Vegas or Los Angeles or Tucson and you will think about how young you once were and how different your hair looked. You will remember how he used to fashion flower stems to fill the buttonholes of his thrift store shirts. You will remember how much you hated his gap tooth and how much you loved the tobacco smell clinging to his chest.

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Part V: The Photographer’s Note

The budding Father-Photographer must remember that, at a certain age, he too will evolve: from Fathers to Friends, then perhaps to Lovers or Landscapes. The Father-Photographer in me has retired. And, like the image of the Father, the photos you take will suggest a shadow of your former self.

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It has been said that the Photographer must love his subject, in some way, to find the beauty in it. In photographing the Father, this Field Guide must ask the same of its readers. Do not forget your importance—or his—and, most importantly, remember to look up from the lens once in a while.

 

 

 

Nobody replies to Will Nixon when he texts in group chats, and he is an only child. If you believe these phenomena are related, please email him advice at william.nixon@yale.edu.

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