“Sometimes we find our inherent selves in youth. It is a recognition of something that at first is small within us, that we will grow into somehow” The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje

I was struck by these thoughts. They have woven themselves into me,  and they have pressed up against a barrier on the way out.

I am seeing a small girl standing on the tailgate of truck. (Is that right? Did we have a truck at that time? I do remember being high up.)  She is standing with a brown rectangular box in her hands. A camera. Her first. As I remember this I am watching my younger self. One of those third person memories, where you are separate from the girl you are looking at, but you are also in her, and are her. Those memories can’t always be trusted. They are both real and not real. They ripple with distortion.

As you are protectively watching her, she glances over her shoulder, as if for reinforcement. As though you are her buttress. And you know that you are.

She is marking time. No. She is stopping time. Marking changes.

click. that click seems so quiet. a pause. these images she is making are just whispers in time. there are people here in the landscape, but is that what she is trying to hold on to?

Something tangible will remain. It will be a small paper square with a white border. The surface glossy. The white border is appropriate because it is a landscape of snow.  White, grey and cold.  On the cusp of a warmer  season. (those people; what do they look like now?)

You can almost smell the plasticity of the brown box. The smell of the film. The acrid odour of a just-burned flashbulb. It is powerful, that  particular sense. A sense that can send you back into a memory as fast as a swirling twister. One quick spiraling breath and you are there. Fleetingly. But in that snippet of time you remember that sensation.

The power of pausing time. Shaping images.

click. it is a quiet place this marking of moments. are they shaped to her favour? if the memories can’t be trusted, can the images? are they too, manipulated by time? it doesn’t matter. she is fond of the layers that time settles on these moments, she is easily pulled into the riddles.  click. exhale.  she is still lost in this visual space.  still at times, glancing over her shoulder. i am watching her, still.

© Karen McRae, 2012

63 thoughts on “Exposure

  1. Lovely piece of writing, Karen. And very appropriate to begin with that quote from Ondaatje, who I’ve thought of when looking at your images before (‘Even the River is Thirsty’ is, I assume, an allusion to The Famished Road…?).

  2. Karen, thank you for a peek into your past. We now understand your work a little better. And now you have forced me to look into “ONDAATJE” for which I also have to thank you. We do fill in the voids of our memories, however, I think that is not only natural but good. Wally

  3. Good writing and thank you for the quote. And thank you for introducing Ondaatje to me, I have ordered that book now.
    Have a lovely day


  4. A captivating thought beautifully expressed. Probably, on reflection, many of us can recall similar glimpses of our futures – experiences that resonated with who we truly are. Sadly, some can on occasions be temporarily, or even permanently, derailed by ‘life’, or even by the straitjacket of education.

    1. Karen, your post stimulated a good deal of discussion in our house! I thought my wife’s response was interesting: ‘Yes, I think we always know our future selves, when young. We sense the magic which is at the core of our being, it lies there like a spell waiting to be woven into the weft of our lives. We play games with it when we’re young because it is the stuff of fairy tale but we discard it as nonsense as we grow up, to our cost.’

  5. Karen, it is unusual for you to write on your blog. But you are as excellent in writing as in photography. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The childhood memories describing is picturesque.

  6. This is wonderful Karen. You woke up some long gone memories here…. the smell of the burned flash, and the film… not to mention the smell inside the dark room. Gosh I loved the dark room, for being dark, the routines and the excitement waiting to see the result.

  7. Oh Karen! How lovely to read your dream-like sequences of memory, like we are reading your breath … so subtle and real. A moment. How wonderful! Thankyou 🙂

  8. My wife remembers walking through the house all day looking down into the viewfinder of her Brownie? I distinctly remember getting my Agfa Box Camera with little rectangular viewfinders through which you basically could not see a darn thing, but I loved it, and even used to string up flash-powder packets in our living room, and ignite them, to take indoor photos…

    1. I find it fascinating, the memories that really stick in our heads. They seem so significant at times.
      (Those old viewfinders were rather disorienting, weren’t they!)

      I am now imagining a string of your flash-powder pockets all strung up… 🙂

      1. Well, I only used one at a time, they sure made a big flash and loads of smoke – really dangerous all all get out. Of course, flash bulbs were pretty dangerous too!

  9. Beautifully written! I used to draw and paint as a child… maybe I should really force myself to get away from my design programs and sit down with a brush again!

    Thanks for that reminder 🙂

  10. Such beautiful thoughts, enchanting insight, brought back memories that are always near the surface.

    I begged and begged and got my Brownie for my 6th birthday. I cherished it. My first roll of film and the disappointment in the photos but the learning from them and the excitement of a dozen of rolls of film a year a precious two dozen black and white photos a year. Then as I got older the dark room, all amazing experiences that shaped me.

    1. Oops, that was TWO rolls of film a year, two dozen precious shots a year. Saved my first batch of photos until I was grown, but they were lost in a flood. Memories are good, also.

      1. It’s neat to hear your childhood stories regarding similar experiences, Shez.
        Too bad you lost your first photos. I have a few somewhere but I’m not sure where!

      2. Karen, reading your post reminded me of so many similar experiences. Not a bad flood, just enough to soak through my box of “prescious” stuff stored in my parents garage. I remember every one of the photos. The one thing I am unsure of, did the rolls come with 8 shots or 12?

  11. Lovely words, really resonated with me, I had such a similar experience..I can remember the magic of those first pictures, the smell and pop of those little flash cubes, the excitement of your vision coming to life, and the great feeling of being somehow protected but alive behind the camera..isn’t it funny how sometimes we just don’t see who we are or what we truly love for so long? Enjoy your continuing journey! x

    1. Also loved the Ondaatje quote – I just love his writing, particularly his poetry – have you ever read “Handwriting”? I have to confess that sometimes I get a little lost with it, but his words are just so full of imagery, I always go into some new place when I read them and they always spark so many ideas!

      1. Hi Cath,
        I’ve read several of his books but none of his poetry ones. I will, though! And maybe I’ll start with “Handwriting”.
        It’s true, his writing is inspiring. Thank you!

  12. Tender reflections of that little girl, becoming…poetic words…and an analysis of memory’s components. I like the place your mind went with this, Karen…moving.

  13. Ho no …. More books!
    Thank you Karen; you have just introduced me to a new author. We have a house full of books at home, but I still marvel at how newly introduced writers can invoke the thought ‘How did I miss this one’
    Loved your Prose, it certainly stirred some distant memory cells.


  14. Ah, Ondaatje. You instantly catapulted me to my senior year studying Canadian authors at SUNY Oswego. My favorite was Alice Munro, Dance of the Happy Shades : )
    Your writing like your photographs is poetic, enchanting and beautifully haunting. I loved this post and how you wrote about your past. You should write more. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  15. Hi Karen – I have been busy and am just catching up. Sure am glad I did not miss this one. Beautiful writing (you should do more!) that evoked all kinds of memories of the first camera and ventures into photography of my small self.

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