I have been seeing a lot of photographs lately. Many of these pictures have involved vacations. Friends, both real and cyber, have shared pictures of recent and past vacations. There are pictures of past family vacations in our photo collections at home. and there have even been pictures of long-ago vacations of other people that have been preserved as examples of history or the wonders of Kodachrome film from bygone days.
I, however, once took a trip and did not snap a single shot through a lens. And I have been asking myself – does the lack of pictures make the trip less memorable? Or more?
Pictures preserve memories. Places, people and events from long ago can be revisited by looking at an old photograph. These old snapshots are irreplaceable ways to remember loved ones and events from long ago and I would never suggest that anyone go through a lifetime without taking plenty of pictures along the way. There is, of course, no danger of this happening since the advent of the cell phone camera. But that is another topic, one that involves pictures that may be both too numerous and too impermanent to have the kind of impact that came from the days of film.
When I was six years old my mother and grandma drove us out to California to meet my father who had been there on business. We made many stops and my mother worked the camera quite a lot. Do I remember the trip independently of the pictures? I have a couple of isolated memories but the events shown in pictures are the scenes that have been implanted the most deeply. Perhaps this is why I have so few memories of the return trip when Dad seemed in a hurry to get home and no pictures were taken.
In 1987 I was a young single adult with a good job and a fairly new car. My grandparents were getting up in years and I decided to take a few days for a trip from Indianapolis to Philadelphia to visit them. It was a nice visit but not my only one. Because I had already come that far I had made arrangements to continue north into Bergen County New Jersey to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins.
My first full day there was a weekday. One cousin lived and worked in New York City and another worked within commuting distance. It was decided that we would meet at the South Street Seaport for drinks and dinner at 6 or 6:30 that evening. It was also decided that I would spend the day in New York.
To be honest I was a little intimidated. But my relatives gave me some pointers and told me I would be fine. I had spent a lifetime experiencing New York through movies and TV and I was determined to replicate some of what I had considered to be “Classic New York” moments. At least Classic New York from a pre-Seinfeld era.
First I decided to wear a suit. I was not going to be a tourist, but would instead be someone soaking up the NYC experience. In my mind New Yorkers wore suits. At least New Yorkers in Manhattan on a work day in the ’80s wore suits. So that much was decided. Another thing I decided was that I was not going to take a camera. First, a camera would turn me into a tourist. A suit-wearing tourist, which is the worst kind. But more than that I was determined to just “be there”, soaking up the experience and not distracted by what might or might not make a good photograph.
The taking of pictures on a vacation, it seemed to me then, created some small level of stress and dilemma. There is pressure to take photographs that are worthy of the moment and pressure to create moments worthy of the photographs. I will confess that I still feel this way. So on that day I was not going to search for memorable views, nor was I going to worry about rationing the twenty-four or thirty-six shots on the roll of film in my point-and-shoot 35 mm camera.
Aunt Peg dropped me at the train station for the last morning train into The City. It was fun calling it The City. I bought a Wall Street Journal to read on the train (what else is a proper New Yorker supposed to read on a train into The City?) and boarded just like some of the late commuters around me. I wondered if the conductor or any of the other passengers was jealous of my life as a hotshot young executive who had the freedom to arrive late for work. Or perhaps they pegged me for a tourist anyway.
I had been told to get off at the station under the World Trade Center and it was suggested that I take an elevator ride to the top to soak in the view of The City from way, way up high. I remember these experiences vividly and following 9/11 this has become one of my most bittersweet memories. I was underground in the station where, not fifteen years later, millions of tons of rubble crushed and buried everyone and everything there. I ascended to the very top of one of the towers where so many had perished from the fire or from the collapse or in those most awful cases of those who jumped. I think that any photographs taken from the old World Trade Center would make me sad now.
The rest of my day in The City was not nearly as touched by that most tragic day our our lives, but was instead quite ordinary. I was there on a day when one of the unions was threatening a cab strike at 5 p.m. so my Midwestern conservatism determined that I had best not get far from lower Manhattan where I had to be by the end of the day. Yes there were subways but those subways would become overwhelmed if there were no cabs. So my day was spent on foot, as it is for so many New Yorkers.
I walked through the New York Stock Exchange. I walked down Wall Street. My lunch was from a hot dog cart in the financial district. How many celluloid New Yorkers had I seen eating a hot dog on the sidewalk? Now I had done it too, only without any pictures to prove it to the folks back home.
I walked through Battery Park and took the ferry to Liberty Island. The Statue of Liberty had recently undergone a deep-down restoration spearheaded by Lee Iacocca. Unfortunately we were all told that the elevator was out of order that particular day. I smiled and chuckled to myself, wondering if Chrysler had been the low bidder for the elevator.
I was not, I decided, going to come all the way from Indiana and look at Lady Liberty from its base. I was a healthy young man and doggedly hit the stairs. Along with most everyone else on the tour. After some of the lower levels the stairs became quite steep. Traffic moved slowly and I found that the rear end of the person ahead of me was at eye level for most of the climb. I would certainly never have gotten a picture of that.
As I climbed I was kept going by the thought that I could take a breather once I hit the observation deck up top. Actually no – the observation deck was a narrow, single-file line that moved past the windows in the Lady’s crown and then to the stairs back down. Rest would have to wait until I was back at the bottom. When I finally made it my legs felt as though they were made of rubber. Yes, it was a touristy thing to do but I would allow myself one real tourist experience. The suit wasn’t fooling anyone on the ferry, unless someone took me for a foreign agent there for a clandestine meeting. Perhaps someone, somewhere has a picture of the mysterious dark-haired man in the suit on the Liberty Island Ferry.
Somewhere along the line I stopped at a lunch counter in a drugstore for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee. One cannot go to New York without pie and coffee at a lunch counter. The pie was average and the service indifferent, but it was a welcome chance to take a load off and observe the real New York that was all around me. I also took a break in a hotel lobby to get a little rest and read some more of my paper. One good thing about my dapper dress was that nobody came up to ask me if I had any business in that hotel. Nope, it just seemed like a comfortable spot to take a break, thank you very much.
As the sky began to get dark I made it to the South Street Seaport and met my cousins, where my non-seafood-loving-self was urged to try oysters on the half-shell. Someone should have taken a picture of that, let me tell you, because it has never happened again. Beer was involved. The evening was great fun and one of my cousins drove me back to my aunt and uncle’s house. A day or two later I continued my trip up to Connecticut for a brief visit with an old law school roommate before heading back home. No pictures were taken there either.
Would I remember this trip differently had I preserved pieces of it through photography? Undoubtedly. But I would not have taken pictures of the train stations or of the lunch counter or of the hotel lobby, each of which remains just as vivid in my memory as the Statue of Liberty or the view from the World Trade Center.
Sometimes pictures are necessary to freeze moments in time to savor for the rest of our lives and which others might enjoy for a good while beyond. But sometimes it is good to just be there, to soak in an experience and recall it thereafter – in less focus but with sounds and smells and tastes and sensations and emotions that were recorded along with the memories. Not even Kodachrome could do all that.
Opening photo credit: May, 2001 photo by German Ramos. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.