You’re ready. You’ve prepared for this. You inspect your reflection one more time, fix your lipstick, and tuck stubborn fly-aways behind your ears. You ensure that you look pretty. Or silly. Or artsy. Or sexy. Or whatever your persona is. Freeze. Smile. And with the click of a camera, your pose is made immortal.
It may take a number of shots and a number of touch-ups on Photoshop, but you’ll get it. The perfect photo. It will be high resolution, clear, and stunning. That photo will live on beyond your lifetime and spread far past your four cubits. It will be uploaded onto social media and become the You that enters the collective imagination of the world when you are called to mind. It will garner ‘likes’ and comments that will make your day.
But that portrait is not the one that you will treasure.
The photographs that will bring a smile to your lips are the ones with grain. The ones with blur. The ones with cut off body parts and clothes that are stained with dirt and laughs that reside in double chins. Those photos are not the ones that will show you from your good side… they may not even show your face.
But these imperfect photographs are the ones your grandchildren will dig out of the photo album and present to you as they beg for a story. These are the photos that will elicit a chuckle as you pull little bodies onto your large lap and relate tales from your childhood.
Because those dirty, informal, flawed photos are the portraits that sing the notes of the story of your life. Your emotional, exciting, raw life. Those are the portraits that carry your scent. They are not perfect. They are not clear. But then again, neither are you. And that is what makes you unique. That is what makes you awesome.
But sometimes, that’s hard to remember.
Enter the works and words of Zalmy Berkowitz. I watched (for creepometer purposes, I prefer not to use the word stalked) as a long-bearded, leather-booted Zalmy embraced the world of film photography. His photos developed from expired film and featured the adventures and antics of his free, fierce, dirt-loving children. They were too dark, too out of focus, and too grainy. And they were perfect.
Each shot was raw. Each shot was real. Each shot eliminated the camera and welcomed the viewer into the world that his children not only inhabited, but created. I was enabled to know them. I was empowered to dream with them.
I followed his blog with hungry eyes and imagination and waited (im)patiently until he came to New York, where he allowed me to shadow him on a family shoot. “Hold this for a second?” He placed a 12.5cm f/2 aerial lens in my hands.
I inspected the glass and asked, “Don’t you mind that it’s dirty?”
“It’s dirty?” He took it from my hands. “Oh yea, it’s filthy.” He placed the glass back into my hands as he fished an unprotected 50mm lens from the depths of his pocket and twisted it onto his camera.
I was shocked. Everyone knows that you don’t want dirt on your lens. Everyone.
Zalmy explained: “You don’t want to shoot pretty photography. The most famous photographs in history weren’t pretty. Shooting pretty photography is not only meaningless, it is harmful. When you take a photo, the point of the photo is not the subject, it is the story. Dirt is a part of the story.”
And I got it.
There is a story of a man who came to the Lubavitcher Rebbe with a question: “If G-d wanted us to serve Him, why didn’t he create us to be perfect? Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier if we were more like angels? Without temptations and desires?”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe considered the question and, in true Jewish form, answered with another question, “Do you have any hobbies?”
“I collect paintings,” the man replied.
“If you could own any painting, which would it be?”
The man, with fire in his eyes, began speaking about a famous painting by Painter X. Featured in the painting was an elderly couple holding hands at the beach and staring at the sunset, a child digging in the sand at their side. “But I will never be able to afford it. It was last sold for $10,000,000.”
The Rebbe turned to the man and asked, “And if you were to go to the beach at sunset and create the exact same scene and take a photograph, how much could you sell the photo for?”
The man shrugged and replied, “I haven’t the faintest. Maybe $20?”
“But why would the photo be worth less than the painting? The photograph recreates the scene in all of its details, whereas the painting has flaws!”
The man patiently explained to the Rebbe, “Rebbe, people who appreciate art don’t care about how realistic and exact a painting is. Each inaccuracy in the painting by Painter X contains the interpretation and soul of Painter X. That’s what makes it valuable.”
The Rebbe replied, “The same is true with G-d. G-d doesn’t desire perfection. He desires effort and interpretation. The deeds of angels are worth $20. But your deeds? Your imperfect struggles? Those are worth $10,000,000.”
You are insecurities, you are tendencies. You are the rolls of skin on your arms. You are the smudges of makeup after laughing too hard. You are messed up hair after an exhausting day. You are successes. You are failures. You are triumphs.
You are not perfect. You will never be perfect. But why would you want to be? Flawlessness would be selling yourself cheap. You are art, and art isn’t supposed to look perfect. It is supposed to make you feel.
The photograph of your life may be grainy, but that’s ok. Even more than that, it’s necessary. The world thirsts for you in all of your blurry glory.
That grain is you. $10,000,000 worth of you.
To see more of Zalmy’s epic photography, visit his website.
(Note: The Rebbe story has been told to the author numerous times in various forms. The dialogue and details are the author’s own).