It’s a Snap!

I can remember it as if it were yesterday. Mrs. Peterson’s ninth-grade classroom. I can see the desks, the windows, and on the sill of the blackboard, the row of laminated photographs. Each one leaned back as if waiting, daring me to pick it out that shiny lineup.

How I hated to be late to that class! Even after a few minutes, the pictures would be picked over, leaving the dregs for the dawdlers. I wanted the whole range of faces and emotions and situations that stood freeze-framed under plastic. Those photographs were there to make us hungry for writing, and I desired the whole menu to choose from. Little did I know how strong an appetite I was building.

If you’re a regular reader of these essays, you may remember that I’ve written before about how art can prompt stories in children. For some kids, images are much more powerful prompts for their imaginations than words. And if what the cultural commentators say is true, young people are becoming increasingly connected to images. But today’s images flash by, they tumble out of screens like avalanches. For a picture to have an effect on a child’s imagination, they need to crawl by. To have a story grow out of a photo, it requires a bit of staring. At the photo. And off into space.

Where to start? This week holds the birthday of the father of photo-journalism, Alfred Eisenstaedt. His pictures graced the covers of Life magazine throughout much of the 20th century. Older folks may remember him for the photograph of the sailor kissing a girl on VJ day in Times Square. He was a master at capturing a moment, whether it was a waiter skating or an audience of suspenseful children.

Eisenstaedt’s photos would be a great starting point for imagining a story. As you linger over one with your child, ask what she thinks was happening when this picture was taken. (Don’t read the captions, first!) Turn the people in the pictures into characters in a story. Then imagine what would happen next.

I should tell you, though, that imaginations can be ravenous. It’s been thirty years since Mrs. Peterson’s class, and I still can’t get enough.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2006 Bruce Van Patter