Magic vs. the Bony Guy: Six Lifespan Portrait Projects That Speak to Us All

Memory  /  Time Travel
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It can be fun to peek behind the Big Data curtain. For instance: in the time it took to read that last sentence, 2,966 photos were posted to Instagram. That’s 727 uploads every second. Print those photos on some nice paper – say, 1mm thick – and it would take us less than four episodes of Game of Thrones to stack them as high as Mt. Everest. That’s nearly seven Mt. Everests worth of photos every day. On Instagram alone.

So yes, we take a staggering number of photos, and for sure, this boggles the mind – that is if we stop to think about it. Because there’s something in these numbers about how little thought goes into making these images, and so how little they matter. Technology has removed just about all the friction between thought and post, making our data stream a visible stream of consciousness. And how many truly remarkable thoughts have any of us had in a given day?

The Luddites among us will mutter about how we’ve become disconnected from Real Life in the process, how we watch live shows through our phones, how we take vacations without actually being present, or just straight up kill ourselves for selfies. And they’d be right.

But as disposable as the next shot of food porn is, photography is still a kind of magic. It’s magic because it stops Time. Just like that: the most irresistible force in the Universe, brought to heel. With one finger. Let that sink in for a few Instagrams.

And fortunately, there are photo projects that remind us of this magic. When Time is stopped mindfully and systematically, as in the series of portraits that follow, we find ourselves suddenly out past the selfie shallows and into way deeper waters. Here are pictures spanning decades, and documenting lifetimes. They (encourage? require?) us to lift our eyes from our screens and take the long view. They carry power and complexity. They remind us, if we’re willing to think about it, of what’s really behind the curtain. Yeah, him: the bony guy. With the scythe.


Because any effort to stop Time is an effort to stall that guy. With this in mind, it’s fascinating to see what folks did in some of the very first photo sittings: take portraits with the recently deceased. It’s too late for them, the thinking must have gone, but it’s important for us. We need to hold on to them. There’s a macabre tenderness to these portraits, and a wistfulness.

Just as the portraits that follow have their own wistfulness. If Victorian mourning portraits froze a moment at the end of the road, then these modern projects – each a series of the same subject, taken over time – represent pumping the brakes on the way down the hill. And because we’re on the same ride, they speak to us.

What is it they say? It’s an old refrain, old at least as Horace (or is it Robin Williams?):

In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebbed away.
Seize the present; trust tomorrow even as little as you may.


In other words: Carpe Diem. 

Enjoy the journey — time’s a’ ebbin’.

The Lifespan series:


This is the Power of Time: Father and Son Across Three Decades 


From Friendly Desperation: Nicholas Nixon, the Brown Sisters, and a Four-Decade Appointment 


Five Guys, One Cockroach: The Copco Lake Five Project


Because I Make Up the Rules: a Life and a Death in Polaroids


A Desperate Swipe at Immortality: Marc Tasman’s 10-Year Polaroid Self-Portrait Project 

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