Tuesday, February 8, 2011

One Camera, One Picture and a Time Machine

Suppose I gave you a digital camera with enough memory for exactly one picture.  One and only one.  Oh, and you get a time machine, too.

In fact, suppose I put you in the time machine and gave you the opportunity to travel into the past and take exactly one picture of anything you wanted.  Anything at all.

Think about that for a minute.

Images are incredibly powerful and especially relevant in a world that can manufacture and distribute them as easily as ours.   Witness Facebook, YouTube, and your smartphone. 

When it comes to images, we now live in a time when it's nearly impossible to lose anything, even things we wish would get lost.  So it's occasionally a surprise when a set of images that seem important disappear.

Take for example the first Super Bowl played in 1967.  It was recorded by two of the three major networks.  Green Bay beat Kansas City 35-10.  It was the first of one of the most remarkable video juggernauts in the history of media, its descendant played out this last Sunday before 111 million fans.  Yet the Wall Street Journal reported recently:
In a bizarre confluence of events, neither network preserved a tape. All that survived of this broadcast is sideline footage shot by NFL Films and roughly 30 seconds of footage CBS included in a pre-game show for Super Bowl XXV. Somehow, an historic football game that was seen by 26.8 million people had, for all intents and purposes, vanished.
It was, the WSJ said, the Holy Grail of American sports videos.  Missing for over forty years.  A search for the tape went worldwide, including checking on the persistent rumor that Hugh Hefner had taped it in the Bunny Mansion.  All to no avail.  Until now.

"The Paley Center for Media in New York. . .has restored what it believes to be a genuine copy of the CBS broadcast. The 94-minute tape, which has never been shown to the public, was donated to the center by its owner in return for having it restored. It was originally recorded on bulky two-inch video and had been stored in an attic in Pennsylvania for nearly 38 years."

If you've ever visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, which chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy, you'll get to see the famous Zapruder film.  But you'll also get to see a raft of other home movies taken that day by Americans ready and able to record important images.  Zapruder was historic in what he captured, but he was not alone in being there to try.

In 2008 the New England Historic Genealogical Society discovered the earliest known photo of Helen Keller.  It was a wonderful find and created a sensation--because we love images.

I myself am kind of an image junkie.  I have about 10,000 family and genealogical images on a hard drive in my office, with about 3,000 more paper pictures to convert.  That spans all the way from "what a good father you are for taking pictures of your children" to "could you be any more obnoxious, Dad, with that camera?"

When I come back in my next life I'm going to be a National Geographic photographer. 

Or maybe work for Vanity Fair.  In the last twelve months alone I've received three unbelievable books of images, including the stunning Vanity Fair Portraits book--everyone from H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, and George Gershwin to Run-DMC, Joan Collins, Madonna and a shot of Tony Curtis that will give you nightmares.  For years.

The second miraculous book of images (which I've mentioned before) is Maureen Taylor's The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation, 70 images of veterans, loyalists, Native Americans and African Americans, all of whom lived through the American Revolution.  The story of how she gathered and dated the photos alone is worth the price of admission.

Third, and perhaps most profound, is a beautiful coffee table book, The Gernsheim Collection, an archive amassed by Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963.  It includes the world's earliest known photograph from nature taken in 1826.  Ever wonder what Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite looked like in 1838; it's there.  The Acropolis in 1842; yes.  Soldiers resting in the Crimean War in 1855; unbelievable.  (That's Alice of "Wonderland" fame on the left.)

Indeed, if you are looking for some quiet, powerful time away from technology, one of these incredible book of images will provide it.

All of which brings me back to my original question.  What did you decide?  What great historical image would you, your camera and your time machine capture for the rest of us? 

Years ago I read a science fiction story about a Time Machine company that offered group tours to various historic events.  Their number one destination?  The Crucifixion.  Macabre and a little distressing, I know, but probably not all that far off.  Maybe your preference would be the manger scene, or the Sermon on the Mount--I'm just guessing some image of Jesus shows up in a few of your answers.

Me? Caesar crossing the Rubicon, or one of Hannibal's elephant charges?  Maybe.  King Tut?  How about Washington crossing the Delaware, or with his Cabinet?  Confucius?  Helen of Troy?  Cleopatra?  Moses? Galileo?  Bach?  Gutenberg printing a book?  DaVinci painting the Mona Lisa?  Construction of the Forbidden City? Sun Tzu swinging a sword?  Egyptians building a pyramid?  A group shot of Abraham, Isaac and family, or just a bustling day in Ur of the Chaldees?  Marco Polo on the Spice route?  Magellan crossing the Straits of Gibraltar?  The first humans crossing the Bering Strait?  The first humans departing Africa?  A Neanderthal?  An image of men, or Martians, planting one of those Easter Island monoliths?  Stonehenge being built? A mastodon?  A dodo bird?       
Your great-grandfather, the one the family won't talk about any more?

Let me know. 

In the meantime, I'm going to be busy getting another picture or two of my family, despite the abuse it will undoubtedly invoke.