When I was eighteen, I studied documentary photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with the very brilliant photographer Bill Burke. On the last day of class, he told us to make extra prints of our photographs, put them in a box, and not to look at them for twenty years. That is, he asked us to make a time capsule of sorts. I turned thirty-eight a few weeks ago, and so it was time to open the box. Inside the Kodak box was a stack of one hundred or so 8-by-10-inch color prints, mostly yellowing at the edges, dusty and printed paper. They were mostly photographs of young undergrads at private women's colleges in Massachusetts. These girls were half-dressed in their mid-'90s riot grrrl wear, red lipstick, hanging out in the dorm rooms and hanging out of cars, pissing in the woods outside Mount Holyoke, vomiting illegally obtained alcohol not common-space trash cans, dancing on old oak luxury couches at the Wellesley feminist co-op, and reading Emily Dickinson while listening to Ani DiFranco, Belly, and Hole. There is so much adolescent ache in these pictures. There is so much lost time. And there is so much photographic thinking happening within the frames; so much witnessing and so much not looking away. It's true I have looked at some of these images over the years-sometimes I'll show them when I speak at schools. I know that I used them when I applied to grad school at Yale. But, mostly, I have not opened the box. And I certainly haven't looked at all of them together, not in twenty years.
So, what does Bill Burke's assignment teach? What is there to take from this time capsule assignment? Perhaps this assignment teaches us that time changes everything and because of that, it is important to make photographs, because photographs, among their other virtues, are markers of time. Perhaps this assignment teaches us to remember our younger selves, and the SLR, 35mm analog world that those younger brains and bodies fumbled around inside of, and the excitement and innocence of our naive youths. Perhaps the assignment just reminds us of the cars with only radios and no heat or cruise control, and emergency blankets in the back seat where we slept; why we started out in the first place; and why we ever picked up a camera. Perhaps the assignment is to teach us that nothing stays the same and everything important will go away and no one we love will be here forever. Perhaps it is to teach us that no building will be spared, no human body will not ultimately begin to fail, no family will travel together forever without losing someone who once held the center. Perhaps the assignment teaches us that the products of that maddening light bleed on the right-hand side of our light box in 1995, which always caused a ghostly red haze on our test prints, would one day inflict great feelings of nostalgia. Perhaps it is to teach us that one day we will yearn for the late nights in the old color darkroom that always made us feel chemical and itchy, with the one boom box, owned by the darkroom manager, blaring Nirvana and then Jonathan Richman and then, 90.9 or 90.3 or 95.3 FM. Perhaps the assignment is to remind us that photographs are witnesses, unreliable yet loyal guides with perfect memories for exactly how we wanted it to be.
The prints in that box, when I looked at them, felt like old friends, lost at a party for twenty years, still in their sequined bikinis and platform '90s grunge boots, old friends who suddenly located me online after a long silence to ask how I am, as if nothing had happened between then and now. With their innocent faces, their clear memories, their romantic achy loss. In the box, there is also a print of a dear friend who was in Bill's class that year who was for a time my roommate, and went with me once or twice to Wellesley. A few years ago that friend died by suicide, but there he is, in that box. I wish I could peel him out from the paper and bring him back. And another photograph of a woman, a professor I also studied with during that time, taken during one of my trips out to western Massachusetts, probably on my way to Mount Holyoke, who was so knowing and raw and generous and open to the world that she leaped from a great height and did not survive. That box, that assignment, could not have predicted how time would define it, but what Bill knows is that what we have now will not look like anything else we will ever have, and photographs are always about things that are already missing. What to do with that box now? The box with pictures of dead friends and mentors, girls who are now just outlines of bodies, young women who went on to make more mistakes and win more prizes, girls who barely knew anything and behaved as if everything was possible. Time kept its promise to chance. What to do with the box of photographs that remembers everything?