Grainy, hidden faces, out-of-focus: perfect photos


By Kathy Berken

When I discovered that my daughter Erica and her husband Aaron named their first child Isabelle Marie last December, I cried. Isabelle Marie was my mother’s name, and although she died when I was only 24, I would never have traded her for someone else, just to have more time with a mom. As a tribute to my mom and a gift for her namesake, I created a scrapbook of photos of my mother for Isabelle Marie’s baptism. I hauled out my crate and started digging.

These photos are among those Kathy Berken included in a scrapbook she made for her granddaughter, Isabelle Marie.

I found a few dozen dating back to her first Communion in 1915. As the youngest of 11, she did not have the honor of being photographed much. The last treasure was from 1973, a year before she died. It’s grainy, but she is smiling and looking into the camera.

I did my best to fix them in a photo-enhancing program, but the ones that were not professionally taken remained somewhat blurry, grainy and out of focus. Some group shots had subjects partially hidden, looking away from the camera, moving or not smiling. Remember before digital photography, when only professionals took more than one shot? Few of us ever wasted film on our now-common one-more-for-good-luck pictures.


Film and developing were expensive. My parents’ Brownie camera sat for months with film, waiting to be used. Of course, the last photos often suffered from light seepage, and turned out faded. Still, we had them printed, framed or saved in albums or, in my case, a crate.

Looking through the scrapbook of my mother’s life from her first Communion day to the final picture of her sitting at her desk, I discovered something surprising. Although we all have plenty of yet-to-be-deleted pictures on our phones or in Google Photos, we seldom print those. The quality of the pictures from the age of film remained a mystery until we saw them printed, so we crossed our fingers hoping for the best. We captured many imperfect moments where we’d anxiously open the envelope of prints and start talking: “She’s looking down. He’s hiding. She moved. His eyes are closed. Oh well.”

Two 8-by-10 photos of my mom are gems. In one, my mom is the only person looking off to her right, above the heads of her nieces and nephews. It appears that she is trying to see who just said something, causing her to turn just as the photographer snapped the shot. In the other one, of my mom’s immediate family, my mom is laughing, but it seems she is trying her best not to look at the brother who probably made a wisecrack, the one on the far left, not looking at the camera, but at the others.

I love these pictures! If the photographer had taken a dozen shots, just to be sure he/she got the perfect picture, I would not have seen my mother paying attention to her nieces and nephews nor having fun interacting with her family. I would likely have seen everyone looking directly into the camera, trying to fake-smile for the 15th time.

In this day of let’s-take-a-few-more-just-in-case, we would not choose photos like these to print. Yes, we all take the “serious” photo and then the “silly” photo, and yes, we do take candid shots. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the grainy, out-of-focus photos of old that had hidden faces and other imperfections that we intended to be perfect, but weren’t.

The older I get, the more I treasure those because they tell me a story and teach me about God. Our lives are imperfect, grainy, often out of focus. God takes pictures of us like that, snapshots where we just turned to see who was making that wisecrack, making us laugh. And God says, “I love that photo!”

(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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