I remember a particular kind of pop art that I first saw in the 1990s, somewhere between the kiosks and Dipping Dots stands of the malls of my youth. A large poster you could see from across the food court with a single iconic image. Darth Vader, Princess Di, Einstein. Only, it wasn't right. Their faces were oddly pixelated, their contours uneven. Faces just skewed enough that you had to walk closer to see why. Within a few steps you realized that what first appeared to be a single image was instead many smaller images clustered together. The highlights and shadows of each smaller photo joined together to form the curves and colors of the bigger picture. A few steps more and you realize that those small images were themselves photos of the original subject. Einstein comprised of many smaller Einsteins. Vader pieced together from his most menacing movie moments. The history of Princess Di drawn together to form some sort of gestalt being that was both too perfect and too wrong to be the truth.
Like a memory.
And like so many Magic Eye and Neo-Raphaelite posters before them, these compositions faded from the mall to be replaced with the next wave of Belushis, Beatles, and Beyonces. I had all but forgotten them.
Social media, as usually, rears its hydra's head. There is a helpful counter next to your number of friends and followers no matter where you go in the 2.0 media landscape. Counts on photos are less universal. I have to estimate you see, I don't know for certain, but I believe there are thousands of photos of me online. Mostly on Facebook. Some on Instagram. A few in those dark recesses of the web that you're not supposed to talk about lest the Basilisk come and gnaw at your toes. But thousands. Almost certainly enough to create my own little poster. My own little gestalt me full of fictions and truths formed from nothing more than smaller bits of my past.
It terrifies me somewhere deep in my core that without exception those photos are images of a stranger. I know something of that boy who is posing next to a lion at the New York Public Library. I know his looks and his schemes. But I no longer know him. I no longer remember his dreams, his fears, or his regrets though he's left many of each behind, cataloged and tagged for my easy perusal. I see his dark flat eyes in those photos and find myself falling into that uncanny valley which sinks between humanity and artifice. Empathy and understanding ebb away and all I have left is an image which asks more questions than I can answer. I see him and I feel myself made of pieces, each smaller and more easily lost than the last, that drift away on the mildest breath. Let the air eat away at any of these photos too long and I fear that the nothing left behind them will open into a chasm that shall swallow me forever.
Death then. Clearly. Seems petty when you say it that way.
But it's there. That petty fear resonates in each little picture as they pile up and together into the mound of mass that can be shaped into some strange portrait of my life. They're growing and growing...
Take a photo of me now and where does it fit? Is it the master blueprint that serves as the guide to assemble all the images that have come before into my current manifestation. Or is it just another little image to added to the pile for some later collage?
Or maybe it's turtles all the way down.
Maybe that stranger in my clothes is carefully constructed of his own memories, a collection of previous still frames on his own. If I step close enough will I see the pixelation around his smirk, the too-sharp corners of his fingers holding tight to the woman's hand in his.
Closer still will I see each comprising photo is another collection as well? Down and down and down. A house of cards and fractals that spirals infinitely into the minutiae of every silly second of my life.
Perhaps at the end is simply my own navel, burdened with the fury of such intense scrutiny.
Eh, time to let it go.
Who is that stranger? A curse on me if I’m lying—I don’t know this man you’re talking about!
Who is that man? I tell you I do not know him!
Who is he? Jesus Christ, I really don't know.
But he's probably me. If I had to make a guess. And he's probably dying, slowly, day by day. Like we all are, at our own personal rates of egress. Someday, sooner or later, the pile of photos stops growing. You can remix it, rehash it, turn it into a hologram, but the original isn't around anymore to make copies. At that point all you have left is the pile of photos. The strange assortment of memories and moments that you cobble together into something that looks like, if you squint from far away, that person you used to know.
You don't know me. Nor I you. We only see these pieces of pop art, lovingly or casually constructed as recently as our last encounter. We're all little piles of pictures gained sentience and stretching out to one another like leaves raked together and animated to life. We swirl and spin in the wind, colliding in hurt and loss and joy. Sometimes we even share a bit or two. Tiny images doing double duty as they float between us in union. Then we move on. Accumulating or dissipating as the fates allow. We don't know each other. We only smash our presents together until they become some other stranger's past.
I am out there, though. You, too, I would hope. Out there, in the bigger wider stretch of existence. There's all of my little strangers bundled together. Along with all the strangers I could have been or ever will be. Tied up together in a shared identity we never really shared, bound by nothing other than a finite but grandiose sense of self. These collections are too large for us to ever see, and the icons they would reveal are mysteries to us. Hanging looming and large in a gallery that is beautiful and unsettling from far away. Who, I wonder, walks the halls of that gallery, staring at the pixels of our lives?
Whoever they are, I wish they would step closer.