Once upon a time I used a Polaroid camera and went around taking pictures of things that inspired me. Mossy tombstones and cabbage moths and trees growing in strange places. It was so satisfying, the way the image slid out of the camera, presented in a tidy white frame. Often I liked the mistakes best — the things that showed up in the image that I hadn’t expected.
I don’t take so many photographs anymore, but there are days when I’m out walking that I mentally collect images. I can feel a kind of shutter clicking in my mind when I see certain things: a man strolling across the street from his apartment building in shorts, t-shirt and fuzzy brown slippers, cigarette tucked behind his ear. When I click my imaginary camera, the corner store at the other side of the street is visible in the frame, and I know he’s going to get matches. He can’t be bothered to put shoes on. I store the image away in that mysterious place where stories gather.
I have piles of dusty old photos getting blurry over time. When I open the box I keep them in, I smell the toxic smell of a Polaroid photo ripped open — because for a while this is what I would do to the odd photo, tear the white frame off and take the backing away so I could see the wall through the image pinned on it. Now our walls are full of children’s drawings instead. But I sense a parallel in the way my daughter collects images. We come home from any number of adventures and she draws what she remembers — what stood out to her from the day. Or we read the Roald Dahl‘s The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and she draws the pictures in a style surprisingly like Quentin Blake.
It’s amazing to watch the stages of a child’s drawing — from squiggly, nonsensical lines to somewhat recognizable shapes, and then to heads with legs growing out of them. And then to curly eyelashes and lips and people in profile and landscapes that show an understanding of perspective. Apparently the stages are remarkably similar for most children, and have names like “pre-tadpole” and “tadpole” — the latter being a circle with at least two lines coming out of it.
The AAA Lab at Stanford sees it this way: “A common explanation for the ubiquitous tadpole stage is that children are merely trying to symbolize a person and do not put a premium on realism. While this may be true, it does not explain the specific tadpole form…. when children look down at their bodies, they see their arms coming from their head. (Stretch your arms to the side and then look down.) Therefore, early on, children draw pictures combining their head and body as one component. ” Check out the Lab’s children’s drawing page for more.
Just as an aside, check out The Impossible Project, which intends to bring new life to the Polaroid camera and its factory in Enschede, NL. The site lays out the history and the challenges ahead, and quotes the inventor of instant photography, Edwin Land: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”