“Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes.” Roland Barthes from Camera Lucida
In my bookcase wedged between art house published copies of August Sanders, Joel Peter-Witkin, and Cindy Sherman, is a silver brushed metal photo album holding around sixty photographs made during the late 1920s to the early 1990s of a British family. One girl, in particular, is the focus of these photographs.
She appears in some of the photographs as a young girl, five or so, and later as an elderly woman in her late seventies. I encountered these photographs from the basement of an antiquarian bookstore that sold individual photographs for about a dollar apiece. The photographs in the bookshop were categorized by topics: children, animals, old people, vacation, cars. The photographs from this British family were strewn over numerous boxes. The first image I saw and bought was of this girl as an adult looking down into what I believed to be the eyes of a baby. But I could not see the baby’s face. I could only see a sliver of the top of the baby’s head. I bought it because it was a “mistake.” The photographer totally missed the shot. It was a “mistake.” A mistake that would not be seen in the future of digital image printing when accidental cut off heads of people would not be printed. Who other than someone trying to encode photographs with a snapshot aesthetic by recreating a mistake would print a photograph such as this?
A year later while picking through some of the photographs I came across another photograph composed almost like the other one I had purchased except in this photograph it was an older woman, possibly the grandmother, holding the baby. But the baby still had no head. After this find, I picked through for over two hours until I until I found each photograph that I believed belonged to the woman’s family. These were the kinds of photographs that could be found in most albums from early 20th century. There are scenes from from vacations at the beach, domestic life from the interiors of a home, large gatherings at family reunions, the woman and her husband prior to having children or the woman and her husband prior to being parents, and numerous photos taken with their babies or lots of photos taken with their babies. The babies turn into children. The mother of the babies turns from girl-daughter to mother-woman-wife before the eyes of the viewer. Her parents start off as a young couple with their offspring and appear later as grandparents. The chronology seems muddled here… but so it seems when looking though a mixed up a pile of a photographs featuring a persons life.
There are many photos of just the woman by herself in portraits, passport duplicates, and photos of her just standing and staring directly at the camera. When scattered on the table, there is a time capsule that does not move forward like a traditional linear narrative of young to old but a scattered, disorganized mess that that challenge our notions of time and memory. It is awaiting work to be conducted to try to place these photographs in some kind of sense making order. The poet Mark Strand writes about a photograph of his sister, himself, and their mother, “I have stared and stared at this photograph, and each time I have felt a deep and inexplicable rush of sadness. Is it my mother, who holds us and whose hand I hold, is now dead?”
All personal photographs are trying to get lost. Whether they are tucked away in a photo album or existing as ones and zeroes in a computer hard drive, it takes work from their caretakers to protect personal images and their accompanying and desired meanings and stories they hold and once held from becoming “lost.” Personal photographs (digital and paper) exist in an ephemeral state, always in danger of losing their visual presence and their memory inducing vitality to literal and figurative loss.
The week after my father died I did not want to look at photographs of him, but I did desire to know where my photographs of him were. The Polaroid of him using the double-bowed orange Husqvarna chainsaw. The up-close photograph of his hand after he had been treated for a gunshot wound that had blown his little finger right off. The photobooth photos of him holding me when I was a baby. The numerous photos I made just before his death like the image where he is looking right into the camera with the saddest expression I have ever seen. And those two photographs taken with my iPhone after he laid dead in the hospital that I can not look upon, except with quick peeks to check if they are still in the digital folder and have not evaporated or they have not evaporated from some error during frequent backup syncs. This is the short collection of photographs that immediately come to mind as I write. Those images of my father are memories of something I cannot immediately see, but I remember.
It was not only the photographs of my father I was concerned about but of my family as well. My friends. My children. Myself. I wanted to know that the photographs that I had made and others had made over the years featuring my family and friends were in a location I could identify. By identify, I mean I could point or draw a map or give directions on my death bed where all the photos I wanted to pass ontomy children, their children , and so on were located. “Over there in that hard drive is everything.” “In that one box, I’ve placed all the important photographs with a typed list for identification.” While this may be an anxious feeling that many have experienced, having a plan for what is to be done with personal photographs may be best conducted by the super-organized, diligent type-A personand not necessarily by those who love their photographs best or but not necessarily by those who love their photographs best.
Interviews with people who work with lost-and-found photos (collectors, curators, genealogists, photo dealers)
Stories & messages left on a voicemail
Blogs, websites, books
Unsolicited comments on the lost-and-found blog.