My Seventeen Girl Days
Art by Maria Cazzato
Last summer, I decided to learn photography.
I liked photography but, in all honesty, knew very little about it. I could take pictures of a nicely garnished plate of food or an occasional flower, but that was the extent of it. Perhaps once or twice I had taken portraits of friends and family, but the photographs were met with grimaces until whoever they were realized I was waiting for praise like a dog. To this they occasionally offered a placating smile—I usually got the hint.
My inspiration for this pursuit developed rather abruptly, emerging after seeing Japanese photographer Hiromix’s series Seventeen Girl Days. The youthfulness of the collection—with photographs of red polka-dotted bedroom walls, short skirts, and stylish bathroom selfies—was so appealing that it inspired a sort of desperation within me to learn the medium. I had just finished my first year at university, and it suddenly occurred to me that my friends and I were not getting any younger. Therefore, photography seemed like a great way to capture and preserve this decade of our lives that, as we were told, we would look back on as our salad days.
One of my earliest attempts was in May, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Manet exhibition; my friend and I, both admirers of his work, took the train into the city that morning to attend. During the exhibition, she asked me to take a photograph of her standing beside Manet’s Young Lady.
I eagerly obliged, tilting the phone backwards and angling it about 30 degrees.
“You’re cutting her head off,” a voice behind me said.
I turned. One of the museum security guards stood there. He was rather petite and rotund, with gray thinning hair and rosy cheeks. “Pardon me?” I asked.
“I said, you’re cutting her head off.” He took his index finger and gestured to the painting in my viewfinder. The dimensions of the camera had only included Manet’s Young Lady from the neck downward. I had accidentally decapitated her with my iPhone.
“Oh,” I said. I tilted the phone back even more, capturing the entirety of Young Lady. I looked at the guard for approval. He gestured a thumbs up, then walked away leisurely, his hands behind his back. I quickly took the photograph and sheepishly placed the phone back into my pocket.
The experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art taught me a few things. One of them was to take pictures more discreetly. Overall, the comment had been humiliating, so I started to scan my surroundings in advance.
But perhaps the security guard’s note was for the better. I kept it in mind when, in June, I went up to the coast of Maine with my parents.
I’m rather proud of one specific photograph I took there. Of course, it’s easy to find idyllic moments in regions where the scenery is easy on the eyes.
I took the photograph on one of the small islands clustered around Portland’s coast. In it the sky is blue, but there are layers of clouds that hang on the sides. The water is pale and there are no waves, but it ripples eagerly—like a metallic fabric gripped at one end and shaken from the other.
These northern beaches have no sand but, instead, slabs of rock and salt that line the coast. On this particular island, the stones are gray and marbled with stripes of violet and tawny. Near the stones are bright green shrubs that sit low to the ground. They are dotted with berries, lucid and gummy-looking like pomegranate seeds.
In the photograph, my parents stand at the end of a particularly large slab of stone. They are dwarfed by the ocean and the rocks.
I cannot say this photograph, in the grand scheme of things, is anything momentous, but it makes me feel small. I do not mean small in the sense of insignificance or fear, but small in the way the ocean makes you feel small when you look towards the horizon. The beauty and terror of the water disappearing is incomprehensible, while the sight of it makes you want to swim and see for yourself just how far it goes.
Later in the summer, I took a trip to the Finger Lakes with friends, and I prepared accordingly by ordering a plastic yellow Kodak on Amazon.
What I remember from this trip are the rolling hills of upstate New York as our four-hour drive from our hometown to the Finger Lakes neared the end—the anticipation building as we rounded the crest of the hill and saw the water below us. I remember listening to a lot of the Carpenters. I also remember the morning I spent sitting on the front balcony, reclined on a lounge chair with my hands folded atop my belly, with the sudden but murky sense of feeling young.
“Feeling young” is more of a contradiction than a clearly defined feeling. If I were to describe it, it would be a sort of mixture of relief, delight, and fear, brought about by my impression of what it should be like to be young.
I wanted to capture this feeling through my photographs, but I was never able to figure out how. Most of the photographs I took were inauthentic candid shots: photos of my friends seated around the table, pretending to ignore me while I stood in the corner, clicking away; photos of the lake from the view at the edge of the dock; a picture of one of my friends painting her nails.
I had started trying to learn photography because I wanted my own Seventeen Girl Days—but why did I want it? To feel young? Or was it a preemptive measure—done so that, when I was older, I could convince myself that I had indeed succeeded in enjoying this covetous age of youth despite rarely ever feeling that I had?
The week at the Finger Lakes ended, we went home, and I never got the photographs in the Kodak developed. I knew that inside of that camera, there was nothing worth seeing.
My interest in photography began to decline after my trip to the Finger Lakes, though I cannot precisely dictate a specific moment that killed it. It just seemed that, as the summer went by, the momentum was dissipating; and the more pictures I took, the further and further away I felt from it all.
This past semester, due to a hardware glitch in my phone, I had to go into the city to fix it. The issue could not be resolved without wiping my device clean. All the photographs from between my middle school graduation and my sophomore year of college were gone.
Sitting on the train in a seat by the window, I suddenly felt the strange sensation that my memories had been untethered. As the train exited from beneath the ground, the lights from the apartment windows illuminated the view of the suburbs outside. The apartments, houses, and people came and left through the frame of the train windows, disappearing like movie scenes on plastic tape. What I had seen was now floating in the air, melting into a fog without any proof of ever existing.
I still like photography and take pictures from time to time, but in the end, I realized that photography couldn’t do for me what I hoped it would. There was nothing that could.
In many ways, experiencing life alone is burdensome. There is a part of us that wants to share the life we live intimately, to capture something temporary and unique in its entirety. We want to weld our visions, to inhabit the same body, to share our joys and our burdens, the suffering and the pleasure and the absurdity. We think photography is the answer.
But at the end of the day, the things we have seen and felt will be incomprehensible to all but ourselves, and we are the sole witnesses to our own lives. The photographs we take are nothing more than impressions: the red skin of a summer fruit, a glimmer of water flattened into opaque white. This is what can be transcribed, this is what we can hold in our hands.