Someone Else's Stories

Nobody can seize time once it is gone, so we must make do with such husks,
the ones that have not yet succeeded in disintegrating

- Luc Sante, Evidence, 1992

My mother recently asked me if I would like to be the keeper of the family photos belonging to her grandmother; she nor her sisters wanted them. They came to me in a diminutive suitcase belonging to my great-grandmother, a Greyhound Bus tag still attached at the handle. I had wanted to include photos on a new series of paintings, but the photos Mom gave me were mostly tin types. I felt guilty about creating stories around these family treasures (the word "treasure" being relative as no one in her family wanted them) for several reasons:

1. I placed a higher value on antique photos (tin types, cartes de visites, etc.) and decided to save them for my daughter, who I hoped would value them.

2. Being able to get your photo taken back then was a big deal. You dressed up. You posed. These weren’t the candid family photos that I wanted to incorporate in my paintings. I needed images that showed everyday life and more emotion.

3. I felt guilty pairing my ancestors with potentially emotionally charged text, in a painting that I would hopefully show to others or sell to a stranger.

So I did something I feel almost equally guilty about: I bought photos from the time periods I wanted (1940s and 1950s), showing the things I wanted to see, from eBay. I now own nearly 200 snapshots previously belonging to a family that either no longer values them or no longer lives. Seeing the images outside of their true context -- a family who loved each other deeply, a dysfunctional family trying to frame the happy moments of special events, a family somewhere in between... who knows? -- allows me to play the interpreter of someone else’s frozen moments of time. I feel guilty about this too, but I’m thinking about my own family as I do this, diluting or exploding experiences I’ve had. Since I’m on the guilt train, I might as well add this last bit to the haul, too.

By the way, if you enjoy crime scene photos, you may enjoy Luc Sante's Evidence: NYPD Crime Scene Photographs: 1914 - 1918. You won’t necessarily find out a lot about the circumstances surrounding these abandoned, uncaptioned (and hauntingly beautiful though macabre) photos, but you will hopefully enjoy Sante's writing about capturing a moment in time: Even last month's snapshots present us with food that has been eaten, snow that has melted, joys that have faded, and circumstances that will never again be reproduced.

Although Sante is referring specifically to photographs of death, his words can apply to all photos when he states, Every photograph is a regret; it is an end. There is no sequel to what it depicts, no means of expanding it. Of course, I plan to make up the sequels, write (or re-write) the stories. I just wish I could know if I'll be writing truth or fiction.

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