Over the past 15 years, as life’s become increasingly less analog and increasingly more digital, I’ve devised, without thinking on it much, a ritual that effectively closes the book on each year and turns the page to the next.
The ritual is this: some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas every year, I sift through the year’s photos, pictures only in the vaguest sense of the word, amorphous bits and bytes that exist only in my phone — in other words, nowhere.
Even so, I sort and cull. Deleted as if they never existed, the dozen pictures of a blurry sunset that didn’t capture the reality, the hundreds of selfies snapped by bored teens who snatched the phone at random moments, the signs for restaurants seen while out walking that I thought I might someday come back to.
And then, out of the distillate, the photographic jelly that remains, I create an honest-to-goodness paper and ink coffee table book. It makes an excellent gift for the grandparents, for one thing. For another, it allows me to dabble in things I’m actually not very good at, like graphic design, for a captive admiring audience.
Or, I should say: this was something I used to do, until COVID-times. In 2020, the annual family milestones were virtual; the travel, non-existent. We took no pictures.
What to do? The grandmothers needed presents, all the same.
It wasn’t that I actually stopped taking photographs in 2020 — they just became less personally historical, less chronological. Instead of taking pictures of piano recitals and birthdays and holidays and sporting events, I was documenting what I found while I walked Madrid, post-cuarentina, instead: building cornices, bits of blue sky, face masks tossed on the ground, public health announcement signs.
I decided to take 6 or 7 of the best pictures I’d taken of old doorways in Madrid, lay them out in an aesthetically pleasing way and have them turned into (o, the wonders of technology) into an 1000-piece puzzle.
And so, this weekend, which could’ve been much more productively spent (making new year’s resolutions, maybe?), I pieced together, not our most recent past history, but the barest snippets and wisps of a few seconds during 2020. Somehow, in the process, the details went from mundane to momentous. The nighttime sky and the glow of a streetlight in one photo became ethereal. A shop window became timeless; the tiny sticker in the corner of the window that announced that dogs were allowed inside, transportive.
Coincidentally, this weekend, I found myself reading an article about a Spanish photographer who has gotten hooked on taking pictures of old Madrid store fronts before they’re gone. The article called him a flâneur, a term the French coined in the 19th century to describe a certain sort who strolls through a city, engaged in what de Balzac referred to as “the gastronomy of the eye.”
Baudelaire, champion of flânerie, said:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.
Leave it to the Europeans! Walking as an intellectual pursuit, my brand-new New Year’s Resolution.