D I N A H L E N N E Y
The Ones that Get Away
A long list, a category unto itself, an album of if-onlys—
And I don’t mean all the ones I’ve taken that just don’t work because too close, too far, too fuzzy, too something (or else not enough)—
It’s the ones I don’t (didn’t) take at all. Which are different from the ones I shouldn’t take but do: Like, how many pictures do I have of the guy slope-side at Echo Park Lake, preaching at his congregation of pigeons and geese and ducks. And the reader in the red-striped beanie, tilting back in his chair outside Canyon Coffee; there he is most mornings, enjoying a book and a beverage—and there I am sneaking around and past, click-clicking in pursuit of just the right angle. And how about the little abuela (really, her broom is taller than she is) who daily sweeps the sidewalk outside her little house: how dare I take photos of her, much less post them? And, lucky me, only maybe three times in all these years has anyone inquired, politely (and less so—not that I blamed that furious woman, not even at the time), to ask what I thought I was doing, peering into their windows, obviously framing and snapping. And then how to convince them I wasn’t looking inside, really not. It’s the reflection in the glass, I explained each time; though, if I were honest, how exciting to catch the shadowy outline of somebody cooking, writing, expounding, staring into space. Also true, I admit: at dusk, in the glow of a table lamp, I’m certainly drawn past the oak in the window-mirror to an actual vase of flowers on a table, or a cat on a sill, or the pleats in an old velvet curtain; and, not that I lied about the window thing, but sometimes my gaze strays and I find myself shooting, instead, a rusted trike on a slanting porch, or a crooked flight of stairs, or comical statuary (gnomes, buddhas, best of all the chubby goddess on Portia Street).
And—shouldn’t I know better than to take pictures of other people’s children? I should. I do. My lame-ish defense is I’m careful: I shoot from a distance, faces blurred in mid-tag, mid-jump, mid-throw, mid-swing. I guess I shouldn’t shoot people, any people, unawares. But how to deny myself the thrill of the action, natural, authentic—a person, a stranger, in the throes of living; eating, drinking, embracing, feeding their dog from the table, saying hello or goodbye. I know I should ask, and sometimes I do. But the photos I take with permission, however good-natured my subjects, are never any good. By that time, the moment I longed for has long evaporated into that-was-then, instead of this-now.
Anyway, I’m saying, I have hundreds, thousands of images here in my phone, bad and not so bad, all evidence of my apparent obsession with what? Stopping time? Keeping it going? Either way, they’re beside the point—
Rather, it’s the pictures I didn’t (don’t) get at all—
Because I’m driving (or because you were driving, whoever you are, rounding that corner at the light on Sunset before I could frame all five dogs looking out in five different directions from the back of your truck). Or because I realize too late: that Blue Heron is about to fly; that balloon is about to come untethered; that umbrella is about to skid and spin and turn inside out. In those instances, though, I manage to shrug it off: it’s okay, I might say out loud, you saw. You maybe even saw better than if you’d been squinting through a lens. As with the sudden swooping of pigeons at the light at Rowena and Glendale; or the tiny girl riding the top of a great ocean wave; or the man in the purple scarf sharing a cone, two scoops, with his happy-faced pit bull.
Whereas, with the ones that get away, I’m so determined to see, that I don’t. Focused on making something happen, I miss the happening—the flickering, pulsing, waving, tumbling, flying which I only just glimpse, too late, from the corner of my eye, the life of the present becoming the past before I’ve had the chance to catch it in the act—
Dinah Lenney is the author or editor of six books, including Coffee, The Object Parade, Brief Encounters, and Snapshots, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press. She lives in Los Angeles.