The Nine Hundred Dollar iPhone Photo

The touching story behind an imperfect family photo that cost $900, and yet remains priceless.


I’m not going to say that we flew down to Florida to get a picture, because we didn’t. We flew down to Florida to see my grandfather, who is 94-years-old and my son’s only living great-grandparent. All my own great-grandparents passed away long before I was born, as did my husband’s great-grandparents.

So I’m not saying that we flew down to Florida to take a picture, but I’m admitting we wanted one. A photograph of four generations, all alive at the same time. Proof that it had happened. Me, my son, my father, and his father.

My grandfather got sick nine months ago. Up until then he had been more or less fine, just old. He puttered along, talking to people and pondering things. Trimming his nosehairs and fixing his glasses with tape when they broke. He had continued at his hobbies. Yes, he told a lot of the same stories over and over again. Yes, he sometimes rambled on about things that didn’t always make sense, but my father does that too. I do that.

ANOTHER thing that happened nine months ago was that I was about to have a baby for the first time. And a day or two before I went into labor, my father called and asked if I was OK with his flying down to Florida to see his father. He felt bad, he said, because he wanted to be there to see the baby, but he would feel worse, he said, if something happened to his father and he wasn’t there. And I told him, obviously, to go see his father. That the baby would be here when he got back.

And so he flew to Florida. I gave birth to the baby. His own father recovered. He flew back home and probably either held his grandson or said something like, “Hey, nice work, great baby” or maybe high-fived me — honestly I have no idea what happened for the two weeks after having the baby because I was still bleeding out of my ears wondering whether I had given birth to a baby or been hit in the face by a grenade. But the point — the point, is that things do not always go exactly as you had planned them. You assume that you will have this baby and all your nearby family will come to this hospital to greet you and smile and share in your excitement, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

Cut to: Last week.

On the final full day of our three-day trip we are ready to take a picture with my grandfather. And in my head, I think, this picture is going to be great. It has to be great because we paid for two $450 round-trip tickets to Tampa so that we could take it. It has to be great because it is possible this will be the last time I see my grandfather. It is going to be moving and poignant. It is going to be well-lit and all of us are going to look spontaneous yet perfectly composed. We can take it at sunset, while the orange light filters through the trees, the end of the day symbolizing the beauty of the inevitable passage of time. Our faces will be perfectly imperfect, the camera capturing the sincerity of our innermost thoughts. The baby and my grandfather will stare into each other’s eyes with an ethereal sort of understanding. It is a photo that will remain in my family for generations — that my son will keep framed on his desk as he grows older. The type of photo that Annie Leibovitz would pull from a stack of other, more ordinary photographs, asking, “Who? Who took this?”

And so, big surprise, that is not how things went.

We took the photo inside the nursing home because my grandfather was tired and did not really feel like going outside for a photograph. The baby was dirty because I had let him crawl around outside while playing with his second-cousins and because he is a baby and babies are always dirty. If you have one, you know this. The act of wiping dried snot and mashed vegetables off a baby’s face immediately activates neurons in his brain which instruct his body to produce more snot/mash more vegetables into his face. It is as inevitable as the law of gravity. The amount of time that a baby’s face is actually clean is so small it has yet to be caught by the fastest shutter speed on the most high-end camera. It is easier to get a photo of a giant squid.

I had forgotten, also, that I, only two weeks before, had given myself the world’s most terrible haircut and that my father smiles for photos as if he is begrudgingly holding in a bowel movement. And that my grandfather was not as young as he once was. Unable to hold the baby on his lap, I held the baby while standing off to the side. My grandfather sat in his wheelchair and stared straight ahead, unsmiling. The baby continually moved and looked at people who were not in the same direction as the camera. My father blinked a lot. I coughed. My aunt took pictures with her good camera and with her iPad but apologized later that all the photos on her good camera had accidentally been erased. I told her not to worry without mentioning that I myself have done that bazillions of times.

And so that evening I look through the photos and almost all of them are blurry. In the few that are not blurry I am usually blinking or coughing. In the ones where I look OK, my father looks like he is stoically passing a kidney stone. In the ones where my father and I look fine, my grandfather looks clinically-depressed. There are no photos that Annie Leibovitz would pick up, enthusiastically breathless. There is nothing I would even use as the cover photo for a Snapfish album. They are all average. The one photo in which we are not blurry and no one looks completely terrible was taken before we officially started taking photos because none of us was looking at the camera yet. My father and I are looking down at my grandfather, he is looking up at me, saying something, and the baby is looking off in another direction — most likely at a lamp or another nursing home resident or a ceiling fan.

And yet for some reason, the more I look at the photo, the more it grows on me. It is not a perfect photo, but I am suddenly realizing that that is fine. We get so overwhelmed with everything in life being perfect that we forget that nothing is supposed to be perfect. Photos do not have to be perfect. In my sister’s “four-generation photo” taken with her own son and my grandfather, my grandfather is cheerfully sporting two black eyes that he obtained while falling down the previous day. The point of most photos is to say, “I was alive and you were alive, and for a period of time our lives overlapped. This is what we looked like.”

So this will be the photo that we have and the one that I will show my son when he asks if he ever got to meet his great-grandfather. Maybe my son will keep it in a frame on his desk, but probably not — he will probably have better or more current photos to display. Maybe he will not even have a desk when he gets older. I have no idea. Maybe traditional pictures and photo frames will have become obsolete. Or maybe he will live so far into the future that we will finally have time machines, in which case he will be able to get in and travel back to November of 2013. He will watch himself crawling across the plank floors in his dark-blue overalls, pulling himself upright on his great-grandfather’s wheelchair, laughing hysterically as he’s tickled by the wrinkled finger of a 94-year-old man.

He will stand by the door of the time machine, watching us trying to capture it on film, laughing to himself at our bumbling, awkward attempts. And then, for the rest of his life, he will remember having seen it. When he someday dies, the memory will die with him. It is sad to think about, but it is also sort of OK.

Nothing lasts forever. It is nice that it existed at all.

About the author: Raquel is a writer and stand-up comic who lives in Jersey City with her husband and son. writing has been published in Reader’s Digest and BUST magazine. She keeps a parenting blog called The Ugly Volvo. This article was originally published here.

  • Alex Minkin

    “Nothing lasts forever. It is nice that it existed at all.”

    rather nice words to live by in general.

  • Dana Barratt

    It is a perfect photo as it captured a genuine moment. Technical qualities are important in aesthetics and art, but one cannot or should not lose sight of what is actually going on in a picture.

  • John

    I can see the slogan, “Professional photographers, for the important moments in life. For the rest, there’s iphone…”

  • Tom Gillespie

    fantastic story and a wonderful photo!

  • Ryan Hart
  • Jen

    Nice sentiment. Not to trample on it, but could’ve had all that, and a frame worthy photo, if you’d hired a professional for an hour.

  • Jan Keifer Jaim

    plot twist: the grandfather is the baby. @.@

  • Frank McKenna

    Beautiful. Photographs. Thank God for Photographs.

  • hoovdaddy

    really? You really said that? Sad person you are for such a comment.

  • Phil


  • Vin Weathermon

    Nobody hires professionals anymore. They have all they need in their phones. It is a sad reality…but then again, if this was your grandfather, would you hire a pro? Or have a family member do it? Sometimes good enough truly is good enough.

  • Ernesto Quintero

    Annie L. would charge $900.

  • Omar Salgado

    That reminds me of the studium and punctum Barthes talked about.

  • Maggie Emm

    I think the photo is wonderful – there is so much humanity in it, and relationship history(the tenderness of your father with his father!). Much better than a standard looking at the camera pic.

  • Scott M.

    Touching and well written.

  • Michele

    Here, take my 2 cents, make it a 900.02$ photo and fix the white balance…

  • Igor Ken

    so touching :)

  • Frode Hegland

    I think it’s a beautiful photo. Maybe run it through VSCO to make it a classic black and white? I just did a basic black and white in Photoshop to get an idea. Seems like it works.

  • fgd

    it sounds like yolo =(

  • JonathonWatkins

    Yes they still do hire professionals. While people might have the tools to take a good photos, they usually don’t have the skill or artistic eye to create something wonderful. They spent $900 and by spending a bit more they could have had the special photo they wanted instead of ‘good enough’.

  • Richard Ford

    Kinda rude to just go and shop someone else’s work like that.

  • Christopher Fugle

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have read this article, your personal story over and over again. Your generations photo is simply perfect…just like the lives it captures. Not posed or artificially manipulated. Never having the same chance as you, I can appreciate the efforts to have everyone together, in one room just to be…

  • Michael Palmer

    Great story. I don’t have any even half decent recent photos of my Dad and I… Sadly I left it too late. You have this. Treasure it :)

  • Frode Hegland

    Why? Not really Photoshopped, simply an illustration of how it would look in black and white.

  • Dana Barratt

    Omar, that is exactly what I was thinking

  • alex

    sorry but the “good enough photo” doesn’t work for me and i hope you got some others for the legacy…
    yeah all generations are in the frame but are they interacting? nope

    you could have at least sitted in the chair with your son so that his grandfather could see his grandson face to face and then take the pic.
    i’m not bashing but this feels like a tourist who’s visiting a place just to get the picture of him standing there, useless…

  • Alex Minkin

    yeah….no…i’m not even…

  • Candid

    Great story, guys… thanks for sharing. Would love to pass this onto our community.

  • superduckz

    Geez it’s not like he painted horns and a mustache on them. Just a simple earnest thought / suggestion. Are we really THAT touchy now?

  • catfish252

    Glad that you could make the 4 generation thing happen.

  • catfish252

    I tried to make the picture look a little more natural for you.

  • HB

    It’s a rather good composition. It’s very natural when looking at photographs for your eye to follow people’s gaze. So in this photo you start with the great grandfather as he’s clearly the subject, you follow his gaze up to the granddaughter, then from her to the baby, then to his father and back to the great grandfather. It works very well. Contrast this with the standard group shot with everyone looking at the camera. You look at them, they look at you, you look at them, they look at you – it’s static, there isn’t the flow there is in this photo. Another thing in this photo which is good (and which is used a lot in photography and painting) is composing things in a triangle – in this photo, the heads of the three adults form a pleasing triangle.

  • Victor

    There’s no shame in getting cute snapshot. You don’t need to write an essay to defend it.

  • Dana Barratt

    Not interacting? I don’t know what photo you are looking at, but I observe plenty of interaction occurring within the photo. There is a story there. (The author also wrote out the context in which the photo was taken as well.) Perhaps you did not read that, or perhaps your idea of interacting is simple concrete visual representations of movement and speech? I’m curious. look at the painting Cardsharps by Caravaggio. Do you think there is no interaction in this painting as well?

  • Dana Barratt

    Great observations

  • Karen


  • superduckz

    With Respect. A few minutes in Lightroom. It has some good potential.

  • L Malobenski

    Chances are aunties good camera snapshots weren’t much better,
    but any erased pic can be recovered though they probably are not worth a free download

  • Shakyakumara

    …but actually it’s a really great photo, imho. Precisely because it’s not posed, people looking natural, doing what they do, being themselves. Thanks for sharing

  • Guest

    A quick white balance really helps.

  • theuglyvolvo

    I wrote this essay after feeling terrible that my mother paid for my plane ticket down there and even though she never said anything I knew she really wanted a wonderful picture of the four of us. I originially blogged about it with the hope that she’d appreciate the essay and the sentiment and wouldn’t feel as bad that we didn’t really get any great shots. The response to the post has been overwhelming and please know that I’ve taken all the altered versions of the photo and sent them to her. I feel so sappy writing this, but really, thanks. It’s such a little thing, but it’s really meant a lot.
    -raquel (TheUglyVolvo)

  • roeravid

    not really, actually

  • Heather

    I want to say thank you for this post and say I so understand. I did something similar with my Grandfather and though we saw him a few times before he died, he was never quite well enough to take a picture again, and while the one I have, also is not “perfect” I feel so lucky to have that photo. Sometimes the memory you can share is far more perfect then some arbitrary asthenic. All the best to you!