In Praise of the Imperfect Photograph

My father, 69, is going through his massive collection of slides and digitizing them. As a result, every few days a photo or two from a family beach outing or a holiday long past will pop into my email stream without warning.

They aren’t particularly arresting images—no wild kaleidoscopic sunsets or Instagram-worthy food shots here—and yet they command my immediate attention.

In one (seen at right) I’m looking at the camera as my mother, slightly cut off, is braiding my hair. My younger brother, then about two, is reaching for the photographer. The color is too bright in some spots, too dark in others. The orange shag carpeting screams “the ‘70s have been here,” as do my brother’s denim jumpsuit and my own minidress. I look at it and I can almost feel the slight pull on my hair as I turn toward my father’s lens.

(Photograph courtesy Heather Greenwood Davis)
(Photograph courtesy Heather Greenwood Davis)

In another photo we are vacationing: a family of five on a park bench trying to achieve the perfect keepsake photo. Clearly it wasn’t working. In some, no one looks at the camera. In others, eyes are squinted or completely closed. And finally there are the ones where my teenage brother looks impossibly bored of the whole ordeal.

These aren’t the photos that made it up onto my parents’ walls or even the refrigerator. The unfiltered, slightly blurred snapshots held no value to us then.

Today they are, by far, the best things that have ever come into my inbox.

My father has always loved photography. Though it changed over the years—Canon to Nikon, still to camcorder (one image documents a movie camera roughly the size of my brother’s head)—his camera was essentially the sixth member of our family.

And constant clicking was an expected part of any trip. You’d be peering up at a waterfall or bent low digging for worms, and my father would call out your name. When you turned, a lens would capture your smile—or grimace or look of exasperation—and move on.

And unlike my iPhone, which is now overburdened with about 4,000 photos, my father’s snaps didn’t live long in the camera. We’d come home and he’d send out the film for processing immediately.

Before long—and long before the memories of the trip had dimmed enough for us to need to relive them—we’d be forced to gather in the basement for a show. Lights would be lowered, the whirring of the projector wheel would start, and soon the very thing I had just experienced would be splashed across the wall.

I hated it.

Sure, there was the occasional giggle, but the event was mostly something we kids had to suffer through. When the lights came on and we were finally released, we’d run for the door as fast as we could.

Fast-forward 30 years and the scenario is much different.

These imperfect photos hold magic.

They offer insight into my family’s past that I had forgotten: the way we were all transfixed by my new baby brother, the fashion-forward styles my mother would wear, my inability to keep my hair under control.

With each one I get a memory back: My late grandmother’s touch, the coldness of my little brother’s stare (to be fair, I tortured him as a child), the signs of my preteen confidence that disappeared only a few years later. It’s all there … even when it’s blurry or only half captured.

I crave them now that I’m older, these images that offer up small hints at the family we would become. I share them with my sons, who laugh at how “macho” their grandfather looks and wonder at my mother’s once long tresses. The people in the pictures aren’t the ones they’ve grown up with, adding a layer to their ideas of who we all are: I was once their age. Their grandparents have lives outside of spoiling their grandchildren rotten.

We take photography for granted now. We snap away on our cellphones and sort through our digital photos by the dozens, deleting the ones that aren’t worthy of a 16×9 canvas. We filter, crop, and manipulate, but in doing so it occurs to me that we are losing something.

Of the photos my father’s sent me so far, the ones I love best are grievously flawed. The shots where the family is clearly unaware that they’re about to be photographed or doing the most mundane of things, these are the snapshots of our lives—uncombed hair, tousled clothing, and all.

These simple gifts of memory that show up in my inbox have me forever grateful that my father didn’t have the option to delete and try again. And though I love the thrill of capturing the perfect shot, I have a feeling I’ll be saving the imperfects for my kids, too.

Heather Greenwood Davis is Nat Geo Travel’s resident family travel advocate, guru, and soothsayer. Follow her on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis and on Instagram @heathergd.

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  1. Bibi
    March 20, 2016, 12:25 pm

    This is lovely, thank you so much for this. My love of photography was a basic camera photographing as many family events as possible with the goal of connecting family from Japan to Puerto Rico. Never thinking I was good enough – I encouraged my niece to pursue photography. She has been a photographer now for 9 years, having taken courses at ICP, Cooper Union, and FIT, her dream is to become a Nat Geo photographer – I can only hope one day she will be upon graduating college! Having compiled all photos in albums, she visis to just sit and look through these old family photos. This article was a pleasure to read.

  2. Matthew Rounseville
    Tucson, AZ
    November 13, 2015, 1:52 pm

    A beautifully expressed sentiment. Something wistful and moving about old family photos.

  3. Jodie Castellani
    October 8, 2015, 11:14 pm

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful illustration of the true purpose of photography. A wise person told me that damaged goods also have beauty…and I’ve learned this through our own imperfect family photos taken by my now deceased father. I wouldn’t trade them for any technically perfect. You have beautifully captured a time and a culture which, while your own, represents so many of us of that era. As such, this was well within the stated mission of National Geographic’s focus on people and their unique culture. It was a spot on representation and I thank you for this walk down memory lane. Time travel is priceless.

  4. Shyamal Chatterji
    October 5, 2015, 5:04 am

    I agree with Hart . On the whole, photography now has made it possible to keep better records of events as well as emotions. I have used Box cameras, SLR and other 35 mm film cameras, Digital cameras – both point&shoot and DSLRs. I do believe, there will be better memory records to look back to.

  5. Bruce Weiss
    September 30, 2015, 2:04 pm

    Years ago, many, I taught adult evening classes in photography and tried to impress upon them the future value of the family snapshots. My hope is that at least a few understood.

  6. Linda Forward
    September 6, 2015, 12:08 am

    Sometimes I find myself choosing to keep photos that are imperfect, maybe slightly out-of-focus, but that capture a certain expression, feeling, or pose. I won’t feel silly for keeping them now. Thanks for the different perspective.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      September 15, 2015, 2:08 pm

      I find they often offer some of the best memories later!

  7. Alex Nowak
    St. Louis, MO
    September 2, 2015, 1:07 pm

    I found your article very touching. It brought tears to my eyes thinking of similar pictures from my families past. Thank you for sharing this. The moments you mention are so beautifully relatable. It really is little moments, some almost throwaways, that can inform us most about ourselves and the people we love.

  8. Robert Puglisi
    Sebastian, Florida
    August 23, 2015, 2:40 pm

    I’m very glad my father didn’t have a delete button.

  9. Brenda
    Orangeburg, SC
    August 22, 2015, 10:13 pm

    It was a pleasure to read the article and look at the photos. My father was the family photographer. He loved taking pictures of his three girls and nephew in the 1950s and 60s.

    In the early 1970s when my nephew was born, I started taking pictures of the family and my travels. I bought a Kodak Instamatic 110 pocket camera. I also invested in a GAF Super 8 movie camera and a projector. To this day I take lots of pictures and send them to family and friends.

  10. Hart
    The Republic of California
    August 22, 2015, 9:51 am

    From the description in the National Geographic news email it sounded as though this article was stating that with the higher resolution cameras of today something was not being captured that was in the old film. This reminded me of an article I read about records vs digital music and I was curious what this something could be since I can’t detect a difference (at least within the digital copies of old photos). But instead, this is just an individual reminiscing about their own childhood and their opinion in comparing their own photos to their fathers. I got through about half of it before I’d had enough. This does not apply to anyone but her, and cannot be of interest to anyone but her and her family and friends. This is something that should be on someones personal blog not on a site like National Geographic.

  11. GABY
    August 22, 2015, 9:01 am

    Wonderfully written and true of many emotions and feelings as I myself look through old family photos occasionally. Thank you for the real thoughts!

  12. Mary
    Kansas City, Mo
    August 21, 2015, 3:42 pm

    I enjoyed the article as it reminded me of my own father and his love of photography. Even as an adult, I would request a slide show when family from out of town came to visit. Some of the photos were digitized for each of my parent’s funerals but I willingly inherited all of the slides and the projector!

  13. larlal
    Montgomery AL
    August 1, 2015, 5:07 pm

    My father was also the man behind the camera. Unfortunately, this means there are fewer pictures of him. He was the focus of attention only when he caught a big fish or a lot of them!

  14. Max
    San Diego, Ca
    July 18, 2015, 11:17 am

    “Fast-forward 30 years and the scenario is much different.” I love that line. Kodak had an advertising line “Pictures are memories you can hold in your hand” and it is so true!

    Great article and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  15. Beverly E. Shields
    Jacksonville, Florida
    July 16, 2015, 3:08 pm

    Your article and photographs brought back wonderful memories. My family photographer was Uncle Louis who made the rounds to the families with children to take pictures of them in their “Sunday Best Outfits.” My brother and I always thought is was a chore getting dressed early just to have our picture taken — especially every Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and News Year’s Eve. But now those pictures are family jewels.

  16. Keith Vega
    Foxboro, MA
    July 16, 2015, 1:16 pm

    Thank you! That article made me smile, and even mist a little at the end. I have been digitizing my mom’s family pics for a while now, and I have many of the same feeling about it all that you do. Keep up the good work!

  17. Anuja
    Mumbai, India
    July 15, 2015, 6:23 am

    Your style of writing is beautiful and captivating. My father enjoys photography too and his camera is the 5th addition to our family as well. Recently, my email account was flooded with baby pictures of my sister and me too. It felt nice, something about those ‘imperfect pictures’ was safe and homely. It was nice seeing my thoughts actually worded :)

  18. Kariane
    July 5, 2015, 8:12 am

    Indeed. I feel the same way about overly cropped images. Sure, the people are now the focus, but maybe in the future we wouldn’t mind a glimpse at the old family car.

  19. Pam Wright
    July 4, 2015, 10:37 am

    Love the pictures and the article! Very touching. The kids got a real kick out of the pictures :)

  20. Parvez Ali
    July 4, 2015, 6:15 am

    Thank you for the article. I had a flashback of rummaging through some of the old pictures of my parents and the ones with me and my brother. Something about those off-color, unprepared photos that speaks to me, much more than any of the “perfect” photos that we get today…

  21. Susan
    San Diego, CA
    July 3, 2015, 1:11 pm

    I love this. My father was the one that always took the pictures, too. I’m so glad. My two teenage sons hate having their pictures taken. They don’t think they’ll ever be interested in looking back. I love looking at old pictures. My grandparents married in 1917 and there’s a picture. How cool is that? My mom’s high school graduation picture, the pictures of my parents’ honeymoon, my college roommates after a late night of studying, my favorite cat, me twirling around in a sundress at age 2 brings back the joy I felt. The pictures give insight into a past we did not live or in memories long forgotten. I’ve told my kids that I plan to create an album so that when I’m old and maybe have dementia or worse I can look at the pictures and they will jog my memories and give me comfort.

  22. Kennan Seaman
    July 2, 2015, 9:56 am

    Thank you for this article. You have captured perfectly the reason that sparked my interest in photography as a kid and continues to make it a passion for me to this day.

  23. Jawaher AlJanahi
    United Arab Emirates
    July 1, 2015, 1:06 pm

    There is infact a LOT of truth to what you are pointing out to! I think it is time to appreciate this natural,genuine part of what flawed pictures hold.

    I really enjoyed reading this article, I was touched.

    Thank you for sharing it and making people aware of how natural shots remain the most valuable among all – for the stories and meanings they hold.