A Picture is Worth (at Least) 1,000 Words

In Craft, Musings on August 25, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Tanya Egan GibsonGuest Blog by Tanya Egan Gibson

I’ve never been a picture-person–one of those folks who whips out the camera just in time to capture baby’s first step or a butterfly alighting on a puppy’s nose. On vacations, I miss the sea lion/dolphin/whale breaching the surface and end up with photos of water, water, water. Yesterday at Six Flags my camera’s battery expired before I could get a shot of my daughter touching an elephant’s trunk. (Apparently you’re supposed to charge the battery every once in a while?) When I do manage to extract a working camera from the depths of my purse, I’m likely to decapitate my subjects or backlight them so excessively that they seem walking shadows.

And yet, strange as this might sound, I consider my digital camera one of my most important, and best-used, possessions. Rather than taking notes about a new place or interesting object I might want to include in a story, I photograph it, keeping what amounts to a visual idea notebook on my computer. Even if I’m not the person to whom you’d want entrust the big group photo of your once-in-a-lifetime four-generational family reunion, even I can take a close-up of a pile of shells. (After all, they don’t wriggle or blink.)

Until I had children, I was in the habit of taking extensive handwritten notes about anything that caught my eye. But on a visit to New York when my daughter was two years old, I discovered how hard it is to jot down more than a few words at a time about, say, the Long Island Sound when your little tyke is trying to run into the Sound. In March. In her shoes and coat.

Desperate to pin down everything possible about the Sound for a scene in my novel, I ended up using my camera (which I’d brought along to take cute-and-hopefully-not-headless photos of my daughter at the water’s edge) as my substitute notebook. I snapped countless photos, unworried about centering or composition or lighting: closeups of rocks and shells and drying sepia-colored foam, tight shots of the patterns windswept beach plants and runnels of water left behind in the sand, wide shots of gulls flying past broken pilings far out from shore.

No, the camera couldn’t capture the smell of the air or the texture of the sand or the sounds of lapping water and gulls, but these were at least easier to recollect, later, with this array of images in front of me later, transferred to my computer.

Since then, I’ve taken to “collecting” images wherever I go. I gave to one of my characters the flesh-colored koi my daughter spied in a pond outside a restaurant. I take photos of clothing (on hangers–not on people, as I think it’s intrusive to take stranger’s photos) in which I outfit my fictional people. I snap pictures at floral shops and in gardens to use in my pretend people’s flower arrangements and yards.

In folders on my computer are weeds on the side of a highway. Puddles. Dirty snow, up close. The ugliest doll in Toys R Us. Black paint eroded by the acid of thousands of tiny hands on the metal spinning wheel of an amusement park teacup ride. A spill on aisle seven–glass and pickles and brine.

For many of these I can already envision places in my next novel and short stories. But there’s of course a folder, too, for things that grabbed me without my knowing why. A folder of images for those days when it feels like nothing is new. Sparks of novelty. Jumpstarts.

They’re not centered, usually. And certainly nothing you’d ever frame. But then again, neither were the scribbles in my notebooks.

Tanya Egan Gibson is the author of the novel How to Buy a Love of Reading published in May, 2009.  An alumna of Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she is mother to a four-year-old who produces countless construction-paper “books” that she insists Mommy “get published” and a one-year-old who teethes copies of HTBALOR, and wife to the most patient man in the universe.


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