THE PICTURE it presented was spectacular enough; it was the sound that was so surprising.
Every year when I was a kid in New York City, our Christmas ritual was to take the subway from the Bronx down into midtown Manhattan so my parents and I could walk along Fifth Avenue, past the beautifully decorated store windows, and, of course, see the tree at Rockefeller Center.
Later, during my years as a newspaper reporter in Washington, I saw plenty of gorgeous trees: the "people's tree" at the Capitol with the white Capitol dome as backdrop; the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, flanked by smaller trees from every state; beautifully decorated trees at town squares and in statehouses all over the country. But none ever has held the same magic for me as the tree at Rockefeller Center.
I keep coming back to the sound. The sound the tree made.
I remember the Manhattan tree as always bathed in gold -- a halo of light and myriad reflections from the hundreds upon hundreds of ornaments it carried with such elegant ease on its evergreen boughs. It was when we walked as close to the tree as possible that we heard the wonderful tinkling sound of those ornaments waving in the frigid breeze, audible only up close, but musical and magical.
To my child's ears the tree was singing, and even as an adult that description pleases.
My parents and I would look forward to our holiday ritual (which always ended with hot chocolate at Schrafft's or Horn & Hardart). The tree, standing huge and glittering, provided a spectacular backdrop to the skating rink, and we would spend lots of time watching the skaters and listening to the scrape-whoosh of their blades as they glided across the ice in the heart of the city, in the always crisp, always cold, December air.
Thinking back now, I realize that the sound of the skaters is as much a part of my Christmas memory as is the visual image of their frozen ballet.
The holidays are a natural time for picture-taking, and Judy and I will be doing our share -- especially with two grandchildren around. But this time I will be doing something else as well: recording Max and Eliot as they unwrap their presents, getting on tape the once in a lifetime sound of a child's Christmas. Granted, one can achieve a version of the same thing with a video camera, but I like my way better. For one thing, it's easier. For another, we are professional still photographers, not professional videographers. I'm much more comfortable with a camera than with a camcorder -- and much happier with the results.
I love the ease with which I can play back my grandsons' words as they sing, talk and tell stories. With my tiny microcassette recorder, I can get them on tape with the push of a button and, more important, play back their words whenever I want, without having to insert a tape into a VCR.
(For all the immediacy, even intimacy, of amateur video, I find that it seems to compound, not minimize, an amateur's errors -- bad lighting, poor sound, camera shake, minimal to nonexistent editing. An amateur still photographer can pitch his or her bad shots, and revel in the keepers. I like that.)
My principal personal work is doing books that combine my photographs with my words. So it is natural that I have an affinity for combining words and pictures. But I have to admit, when it comes to children, especially one's own, the printed word has its limitations. It's one thing to read a 3-year-old's description of his trip to the zoo, or her animated discussion of why she colored the elephant green. It's quite another thing -- especially when that former 3-year-old is entering college -- to hear those wonderful stories again live, in their own young voices.
The beauty of capturing audio is that it does not have to be limited to voices. The sounds of one's everyday life are important -- and ever-changing -- as well. Thinking back on our family trips to Rockefeller Center, I'm reminded of the sound that the D Train made as it pulled into the subway station in the Bronx and brought us down to Manhattan. I grew up with that sound. (My parents never drove and I didn't learn to drive until I became a cub newspaper reporter, about to be sent to a then subway-less Washington.) I'd love to have a recording of the clattery old New York City subway, if only to contrast it with the high-tech smoothness of what we native New Yorkers once called Washington toy train.
The everyday sounds of life can be as important to record as photographs -- and can help create a marvelous document of life -- especially at the holidays.
Questions or comments? Write me c/o Weekend, The Washington Post, 1515 L St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.