When my kids were babies, I took lots of photos – always hoping to get the one perfect shot. This was during the prehistoric, pre-digital age, when cameras required film and film required developing. You couldn’t take a million pictures and preview them on your screen. You had to send them away and pay to have them printed. One by one by one.
Back then, I couldn’t tell a megapixel from a winning lottery ticket, but I knew I’d be able to recognize the perfect shot when I saw it. Trouble was, after hundreds of developed photos, I still hadn’t seen it.
I burned through scores of 35 mm rolls, peering through the lens and giving thanks for the auto-flash feature. I paid attention to lighting and background. I even went through a black and white phase in the late 90s and considered myself artistic for a month or two.
My babies had trouble cooperating with my photolistic tendencies. They squirmed and blinked and drooled and did the things normal kids do when their mom wants them to sit still and smile. My photos wound up off-center. We were haunted by red eye.
I brought them to professional photographers and the results were the same. My kids looked in the wrong direction. They fussed when we tried to get them to lie on their tummies with their chubby fists tucked under their equally chubby chins. Despite my acrobatic contortions to amuse, they refused to smile. After half an hour I was sweating and exhausted. Having your baby’s photo taken is a workout.
We always left the studio with a few okay pictures, but not the perfect one. I gave thanks when naptime arrived. I was tired.
I continued to try (and try and try) hoping to get the perfect picture to include with our annual Christmas card. Just once. I didn’t think it was too much to ask.
Instead I got photos of my kids scowling and picking their noses. There’s one of the three boys on Halloween where one son insisted on doing his silly face. There’s the two oldest, on the front porch, where big sister is practically smothering her little brother so all but the top of his head is covered. One son – who was the happiest of babies – cried wholeheartedly every time we tried to take a group shot with the cousins. We’ve got a whole series of him bawling. Another son used to smile so big that his eyes shut. That went on for a couple of years. My daughter was a somber baby who hardly ever cracked a grin in front of the camera. At least she wasn’t crying.
Somewhere right around baby number four I graduated to a digital camera with the ability to view thousands of pictures without ever having to print any. I figured my shot at the perfect shot increased to even odds.
In the dozen years since, I’ve taken many photos and have gotten better with practice. I don’t have problems with red eye anymore and I learned a trick to increase the odds that everyone is looking toward the camera. I’ve even taken some pretty good pictures using my phone. Over time, I became less zealous, but I still pursued the one perfect shot – which I never got.
Yesterday, I came upon a pile of old, forgotten photos in the basement and leafed through them. My son, now 19, sat as a baby in his older cousin’s lap. He was wailing. Another shot in black and white showed a baby girl, lying in serious contemplation on her daddy’s chest. There was one of the kids splashing in a mud puddle, all dirty and wet. Another of the boys carrying dandelions they’d picked for me. The oldest is giving the youngest a piggyback. Their faces are obscured, but their skin is tan with a warm summer glow and the dandelions are held carefully in tight little fists.
At the time the photos were taken, I saw my daughter and sons doing what they normally did, looking simply like themselves. I was oblivious to their depth and meaning. Now, all these years later, it’s right there in front of me.
During the last two decades, I took thousands of photos, always hoping for the perfect shot I never quite managed to get. Now I look back at the photos and realize it’s true. I never got the one perfect picture. To the contrary, I got them all.