The Reality of a Candid Photo

Walter Clifton (left) and Edith Clifton (front right) walking with friends in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

This is not Hollywood or New York.

It’s West Virginia.

The man in the photo on the far left, looking a little like Vince Vaughn, is my grandfather, but not the one who taught me how to tie my shoes. The woman in the front right, frowning like Patsy Cline after her maiming, is my grandmother, but not my sweet little Gran who made me scrambled eggs and spent 20 years making one quilt.

In this photo, in my mind, she and my grandfather are jazz musicians on their way to the next performance and taking a cigarette break. When I look at this photo, I see an album cover. A scene from Swingers.

Photos are proof that we are more than one person.

Friends who have known us for years will see us differently than our colleagues at work or good friends we’ve known only a short time. How we see each other and ourselves evolves as we age. I think the same is true with the images we preserve on film.

But if you took a picture of me everyday, would it tell you who I really am?

I have stacks of shots with my grandparents in the ’40s and ‘50s. With each picture, I see the different people they were through the prism of my own age.

Looking at this picture when I was 20, they were just people at a gas station. I loved the old car in the background. Now, as I approach 40, I see complexity and romance. I recognize the WWII veteran damaged by shrapnel and the daughter of Italian immigrants who never wanted to get married, but I don’t see my grandparents. Never my grandparents.

The presence of a camera makes us want to capture our best selves.

I always want a chance to suck in my gut and toss my hair. And yet, despite all the potential vulnerability, I love candid shots. The moments they capture are so honest and often open to different interpretations by both the subject and the spectator.

Of course, not everyone has an eye for composition.

Recently, a friend took a picture of me posed at a bar with another friend. She thinks this photo is great and captures the true me. I am horrified because I look like Jabba the Hut.

No, the people in the black and white image are not the grandparents I knew. The moment captured here is just a glimmer of who they were after the war, before children and grandchildren. I wish I had known these people.

Photos show who we are in the moment.

But as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and we interpret the subject through our own lenses of experience and emotion.

There are candid photos of me floating around in the world. Some of which were gone forever until one of my “friends” put one on a cake … for me … at work.

By day, I fundraise at a small women's college in North Carolina for scholarships and academic programs. But when the sun goes down, I spin vinyl from 1960 in my living room for my soul. I'm a product of Generation X from Jacksonville, FL. When I listen to Aretha Franklin, I wonder if I was born in the wrong city, let alone the wrong generation. Some might say I collect nostalgic kitsch. I argue that I preserve fine art.

1 Comment

  • Reply December 6, 2013


    This is a fantastic blog – so real and so true. Love it!!

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