The math is difficult to comprehend, as is the scale of the lives that were lived. There are five or six images per negative, five or six negatives in each envelope or sleeve, maybe 100 sleeves per bag, perhaps 4 or 5 bags. Call it 12,000 pictures. 12,000 pictures taken, 12,000 moments memorialized into still life, 12,000 images to scan through and save or discard. How many dollars spent on film, how many trips to Ken-Mar or Hi-Tech Camera to purchase, to drop off, to pick up? A lifetime of energy spent in documentation and aspiring artistry.
And now they will go to the landfill, where the chemicals that fixed the images to the negatives, fixed the images in time, will break down and leach into the soil and groundwater, to become a part of someone else’s life some generations hence.
I am here, right here in the inescapable now, seeing my aging reflection bounce back off of each strip of cellulose acetate. So much time has elapsed. But as I look at each image, the rock-tumbled downstream memories of my mind surface and I am transported back. For there it all is again: the shape of a particular tree, the look of a grandparent, a favorite sweatshirt, a beloved pet, a vinyl-strapped chaise lounge that was a backyard institution.
The process of scanning through negatives is strange and unfamiliar. It requires adjustments to both your retina and your emotions. It is as if you are observing an alternate universe, one devoid of texture and context, one that is low contrast and negatively colored, one where barely recognizable people did slightly recognizable things in partially recognizable places. Nothing is quite right. Glasses and beards and cat’s eyes, things that fade into the background in the real world, become the prominent markers of negative world. Expressions are hard to discern, but posture is readily apparent. Faces lack features, hair color is all the same.
There are 12,000 freeze-frame moments of joy or accomplishment or wonderment or vain effort to capture something and bring it back to share with others. Showy flowers fulfill their biological mandate. Tides roll in, tides roll out. There are sunsets, boat rigging, gargoyles, cacti, school plays, ancestors with center-parted hair, infants being held, kids playing piano, bad swings in Little League, clouds against mountains, European architecture, decaying roadside signs, stiff family portraits, birthday cakes that were never finished, cats who were loved, cats whose acquaintance was made for but a few minutes. There is an opening day at Shea (a stadium long gone): the wedding-cake stands full, the negative-bunting visible in dark contrast stripes against the façade. But there is no green grass, no smell of hot dogs, no cries of vendors. It is inert, glassed over, an elegiac and un-reconstructable 1/125th of a second from 40 years ago that simply doesn’t matter.
The eye scans left to right and down the sleeve, looking for the familiar in the negative world. Legible writing on a t-shirt. A telltale set of eyeglasses. A jungle gym once so known, so daily, that its very shape sets synapses a-twitter decades later. All in a little rectangle where dark is light and light is dark, a shadowy magenta-and-cyan world of memories.
The mixed up bags of negatives are the product of many moves, from kitchen table to den to attic, from one house to another, one decade to the next. Within each stratum of bag, the years blend together and rocket back and forth. It is 1965, it is 2006. There are grandkids at computers, there are people in fedoras. The imagination must open up to the possibility that time is a Mobius strip, where anything can come next. It is an archaeological tell of exceedingly complex proportions. To review them all in a sitting is to play God, to edit lifetimes, to decide what will leach into the landfill and what will get a stay of execution and be deferred to the next generation. This one goes. This one stays. This one goes. Guadalajara 1979 goes. A hastily-shot set of fireworks pictures goes. An orphaned strip, five images of saguaros dotting a mountainside, goes. Life, dismissed. As if it never really happened at all. The experience, once excitedly and passionately felt but no longer documented, dies. A purging of memories. The removal of all the roadside markers that got you to this point in life. And it begs the question: once the negatives are gone, can you be positive you ever came down those roads at all?