My grandfather
was an ordinary man with an ordinary name: John Smith.

He was a carpenter who built plain, solid houses for plain, solid people like himself.

When he put away his tools, at age 87, he said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do. "I did it for her," he told me, speaking of Edna, his wife of more than 60 years. "She needs me here."

My grandfather's hands were work-roughened and hard, but his manner was tender. I never heard him raise his voice to anyone.

He was 95 when he died quietly in his sleep, of nothing in particular, in a hospital bed in the little Indiana town he was born in.

You won't discover any newspaper stories about John Smith, not even in his little hometown weekly paper, because he never did anything remotely newsworthy. He loved his wife and family, worked hard, kept the Sabbath.

There's almost nothing left of him now. Just memories. And photographs. A few pictures my brother made when our grandfather came to help add a room to my father's house. Others I made on Christmases and birthdays and during our too infrequent weekend visits.

These photographs are memories made visible. And tangible. I have one that I keep in a frame — of John and Edna, standing on their porch, watching us pull away in our car. They always stood there, steadying themselves on the porch railing, until we were out of sight, as if cherishing every moment spent with us.


That image
rekindles fond memories even when my mind is numbed by the daily routine. I get home after a long day and a tiring commute and the last thing on my mind is the way my grandfather laughed when I beat him at chess; then I walk through the living room and see that photograph.

And I remember.

I can remember without the picture of course. But the picture helps me remember to remember.

Photography is a way of capturing memories, of pinning them down. As soon as George Eastman put Kodak Brownies into the hands of the masses, that's how they instinctively put them to use making untold billions of pictures of people doing ordinary things. Grandparents on porches. Children saying cheese.

Will Durant said life is like a stream flowing from past to present, red with the blood from people killing, robbing, warring, betraying, and doing all the other things historians usually record while on the banks are other people, largely unnoticed, building homes, raising children, making love, showing up for work, watching the river go by. "The story of civilization," Durant wrote, "is what happened on the banks."

Some photographers focus on the stream, some on the banks. In each case the result is a few pictures that are truly great, and many many more that are ordinary.

What exactly is it that makes one photograph great, and another ordinary?

I can't tell you. But I can try to show you.

John and Edna Smith on their porch