Leave the gun. Take the cannoli

Years ago, I went to see an exhibit at the Corcoran entitled "What Remains," by the legendary photographer Sally Mann. Usually associated with provocative large format images of her children, this time Mann had turned her camera to a more ethereal subject, the paradox of what effect time and the earth have on our bones, and, conversely, what effect our bones have on the earth and time.

I was fascinated (and grossed out, truth be told) by Mann's haunting images of femurs and fibulas slowly turning into ash. In a peculiar twist, an escaped convict was shot and killed on Mann's Virginia farm and she began photographing the spot where the man had died, looking for any clues that the earth changes just a bit each time it witnesses such an event. Not exactly a crowd-pleasing topic, but Mann has never been one for pleasing crowds. Years after seeing that exhibit, the concept of "what remains" has stayed with me with me longer than the photograph themselves.

It certainly popped to the surface the other day after a series of bizarre coincidences had unfolded. As you all know, bizarre coincidences follow me almost as much as my neighbor's cat, Sparkle. I sometimes feel like Rod Serling is going to pop out from a corner and tell me that it's all been one long Twilight Zone episode.

So the other day was November 13th. It was Cooper the Wonder Dog's 10th birthday. Did I remember? Of course not. I reminded myself to remember all week but forgot when the actual day came around. The funny part is that the night before, on November 12th, I stumbled upon my 1997 pocket diary. I have no idea why it suddenly turned up on my nightstand, though I'm assuming the cleaning ladies found it in the closet or something. So there I was, sitting on my bed, perusing this ten-year-old artifact of dates and contacts, a glimpse back into every appointment and assignment I had that year. According to my book, on January 20th I photographed the inauguration, on April 22 I met the Dali Lama while shoting an assignment on Larry King, and on October 7th I went out to buy a silly rocking horse for a Chris Rock shoot the next day at the Four Seasons hotel. Don't ask. I laughed as I tried to figure out who half the names in the address book belonged to. It's both amazing and disheartening to realize just how many people were prominent in your life ten short years ago, people whose whereabouts today are a total mystery.

Anyway, there I am looking at this freshly certified relic, when I thought I should see what I was doing exactly ten years ago. The answer should have been obvious: We were arriving, at 7:35 a.m on Air France 29, in Paris for our honeymoon. The only other notation was for the next day, November 13, a big asterisk that said "Katy Kelly's BD!" (It didn't say "Cooper's birthday," obviously, because there's no way I could have known Cooper was about to be born the next day.)

Katy is a great friend of mine, dating back to my USA Today days. We used to go out on assignments together in the early 1990's. Then one night we had to drive to Baltimore to cover a convention of adults who collect Barbie dolls and we haven't stopped laughing since. And since I forget so many birthdays, I felt like there was some divine influence at work here. I thought, how cool is this, I would have never remembered Katy's birthday the next day if not for finding this ten-year-old date book.

Well, guess what? I forgot to call Katy the next day. So now I'm 0 for 2. I forgot my dog Cooper's birthday, as well as the birthday of my friend Katy. Serendipity, shmerendipity.

And what does this have to do with "What Remains?" Well, on the day before my day of forgetting things, I happened to bump into a friend on the street in Georgetown. I was crossing R Street into Montrose Park, a place I've shot so many portraits over the years that Sally Mann might want to come over and see what effect one playground can have on an individual, when my friend Alexandra Kovach pulled up and said hi. Alexandra is in charge of events at Evermay, just down the block, one of the most beautiful places one can be married in Washington. It's an old mansion in Georgetown that oozes a different kind of history than most other important landmarks in our nation's capital. Unlike, say, neighboring Dumbarton House, with its Federal era mannequins and its Society of Colonial Dames, Evermay's history is all family, all personal.

Evermay was home to the Belin family for much of the last century and their presence can be felt all over the grounds, including the final resting place of several family members. Photographs of the Belins can be seen all throughout the house, from the day in 1923 they moved in to some of the overseas conferences Mary Belin, the family matriarch, attended when she was a translator for the State Department in the 1930's. (An accomplished tennis player, she also played on center court at Wimbledon in 1938!)

Every time I photograph a wedding at Evermay I find myself staring at Belin family photos all day long. There's something about the staying power of one single image, of one fleeting moment in a family's life, that makes me marvel. It's the opposite effect of walking into a Pottery Barn and seeing all the living room setups lined with fake books and fake photos. At Evermay, all of those people in the pictures actually once called this place their home. This isn't a museum, it's a home. And without the photographs, it would just be another venue.

And so the day after my day of forgetting meaningful things, I Googled Alexandra Kovach to get her number at Evermay and follow up on our chance. But Google gave me something other than a phone number.

The first thing it listed was a story written in the Washington Post by one Alexandra Kovach, titled, "What Fire Couldn't Destroy." Intrigued, I began reading. Dated October 27, just a couple weeks ago, when fires were ravaging Southern California, the story is a first-hand account of the effects another terrible fire, the Oakland Hills wildfire of 1991, had on a little girl. Kovach writes:

I still visualize our house on Vicente Road. I have dreams that take place there. I can still feel the lace on my mother's wedding veil, which my sisters and I would sneak out of its box when we were little girls with big ideas. Or the texture of my parents' bedspread, as we read "The Wind in the Willows," leaving my dreams filled with visions of Mr. Toad floating down the river, night after night. And that giant box where my mother would proudly store the artistic treasures we brought home from school. I would love to see now, or to show my children one day, how I drew the sun when I was 5.

Before I could even finish I picked up the phone and called Alexandra.

"Hey, funny bumping into you on the street yesterday. Um, I was trying to find your number and I Googled you and found this beautiful and sad story about the Okaland Hills fire of 1991. Is that you??" (I mean, how many Alexandra Kovach's can there be, right?)

"I did write that," she said.

"Um, you won't believe this, but I was there that day," I said. "I covered the Oakland Hills fire. I was up from Los Angeles for the Cal football game. I've never seen anything like that. There were only chimneys left as far as the eye could see."

Just another coincidence in my life. Here is someone I know writing movingly about a fire that took her childhood home away in a flash--and with it all her toys and books and photographs--and it turns out I was in the very same place those sixteen years ago, looking at the same devastation, though from a very different perspective. 3,000 homes were burned that day in 1991 and now I felt odd, hoping that Alexandra's house wasn't one of the ones I photographed.

And if you think the Rod Serling stuff is over, think again.

Like many of the people who asked me when my own piece was in the Washington Post in September, I asked Alexandra how she came to write the story for the Post. She told me that she had mulled it over while watching the news, but that it was reading my story in the Post that gave her the courage to pursue it. I was floored. Even by my standard of coincidence and serendipity, this was getting downright spooky.

If you haven't already, please read Alexandra's touching essay. It goes right to the core of "What Remains." What do we keep? What do we lose? What are the remainders?

As Alexandra tells it, the only photo album her family was able to save from the burning house was the one that she and her sister had made of "reject" pictures no one else wanted to save. The ones with the bad expressions, the bad complexions, the eyes closed.

"Overnight, these snapshot disasters became our greatest treasures. Today's digital photos can be modified or erased within seconds of being taken, wiping away all signs of human imperfection. These albums had held the outtakes of our lives so far, but in their flaws, they were true testimony to the children we were and the adults we became, making them all the more precious."

For years I've been trying to explain to people the importance of photos that are real, not staged and manipulated. I've bitten my tongue when the occasional wedding client rejects a stupendous photo because his or her hair was out of place, or when a Georgetown mother rejects a gorgeous photo of her child because he has a scrape on his chin. You're missing the forest for the trees, I usually mumble to myself. And now Alexandra Kovach, the friend who I bumped into on the street that day in Georgetown, a chance encounter that caused me to Google her, an internet search that led to the discovery that her own home was burned to the ground in a fire sixteen years earlier, a fire I witnessed, and an emotional story she felt confident in relating partly because of my story in a newspaper sixteen years later, that Alexandra Kovach was now perfectly summing up my very own feelings about photography itself.

One of the great ironies of the digital era is that in the end, only paper will survive. Faced with raging fire, no one ever runs to save their hard drive. People run to save their photographs. A photograph on a laptop is data. But when printed on paper it is a relic, a prized possesion. It's these photographs that have so much meaning to us, the ones that we put in frames and tape to our monitors and store in the attic. The printed photograph will never die, even in 2057, when we're all driving flying cars and the metric system will have finally arrived, because it will always have one leg up on its digital counterpart. Like humans, the printed picture is alive, gets beat up, and becomes frail and brittle over time. Data is just that--data.

She may not have thought much about this, but I now realize that Alexandra is the perfect person to be at Evermay, a house filled with so many important family photos. In fact, each time I'm photographing a wedding at Evermay, I feel drawn to read and re-read the same letter that is on display in one of the cases. It's a letter from Harry Belin to another family member describing the night he went to pick up his son who was arriving from Germany. Something terrible happened that night. Thankfully the son survived, but the account of the tragedy is so gripping, so riveting in its fountain pen cursive script on yellowed and torn paper, that I often drag wedding guests over to make sure they've seen it. It's incredible: The fire, the "burning hulk crashing to the ground," the desperate search for and reunion with family.

Oh, did I mention? The Belin boy was on the Hindenburg.


p.s. Speaking of important keepsakes, the pictures that accompany this post are all from last month's Photo Marathon. Click them to make them bigger.


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