“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, 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.
My aunt bought a family album at an auction in Chattanooga, TN. The album weighed 12 pounds and was 12 x 18 inches. I could never fit it in my luggage to bring back to Massachusetts. While visiting my parents in Georgia (where the album had been for over a year) I thought of looking for the owners on the Internet. I found them. Herndon and Rufus. We met. I recorded it. The song at the end of this recording is performed by Rita Elliot (the woman you see in the photos below). The original video I made with this audio is HERE.