There was a cardboard box full of memories, mostly black and white photographs, contact prints from roll film cameras, some documents, like an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, a C.C.C. publication that was more or less a yearbook of a camp, all stuff of my Dad’s life. It disappeared a few years after his sudden death from a heart attack, as my Mother struggled with her demons, along with his work shoes, tools, his car, all obliterated in a spell of alcoholic and drug addled insanity.
The photos included pictures from the California Redwoods, CCC boys in the deep snow of North Idaho national forests, old cars, bare-breasted native women somewhere between the Admiralty Islands and Manila. There was a photo of a Japanese soldier up to his armpits in a muddy hole, hands raised in surrender. There were young toughs with “bogarted” cigarettes hanging from their lips on the streets of Chicago (he was one of them).
The box was gone, including the rising sun flag that Japanese soldiers wore inside their shirts, a black and white skull and crossbones flag that flew from the antenna of my Dad’s amphib (amphibious tractor) during the invasion of Leyte – all gone. He was already dead for a couple of years and with the box gone it was as if he had died again. Though he showed up in a few of the prints, he was mostly the photographer. They were his memories, passed on to me, now memories lost.
It occurs to me that from an early age I associated photos with memories. It also occurs to me that they were not my memories. There were in the family little yellow booklets of deckle edged black and white prints, one per roll, of 4thof July picnics, birthday parties and so on, from before I was born or at least from before I was able to form and retain memories. (what a concept! We are not born with that capacity, it has to develop like language and face recognition.) Photos thus connected me to time and events in which I had not participated, at least not wholly. In this essay I want to explore that side of photography, as I continue to reflect on its meaning and significance.
Photography and Memory
My initial exposures to photographs were to black and white, mostly in the form of family prints. Black and white images represented a distance in time. They represented the past. The present was a world of color, a reality reinforced when NBC first put up its peacock and The Wonderful World of Color came on air. Color meant modern and it represented progress. Black and white came to represent the past, the old days, the time before I was. My Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska had both died young, he in 1925 and she in 1930 and they were only figures in some mythical time long before the world I lived in. My maternal grandfather Bill died when I was a toddler, and I have only vague memories of him, but on the wall was a formal portrait made when he was older and white haired, black and white and vignetted. My memories of him were dreamlike, and in black and white. My grandmother never told family stories. I had no idea where she came from or who her parents were. There were no stories of my Mom as a child, and Grandma didn’t talk about her husband.
My Dad, on the other had, at least a couple times talked to me about his life, about good neighbors and his Mother’s singing voice, about his time in an orphanage in Chicago, in the CCCs, about the war. But he was orphaned at 13 and had a lost boy’s perspective on those times.
And he had some photographs.
I always wanted to know more about his life, to know him better but it was difficult as a lot of the men of that generation kept much to themselves. I got a set of books called The Pictorial History of The Second World War when I was about ten or so and I spent hours, days, looking through each volume trying to find a photo of my Dad in the Philippines. All the images were black and white. I tried to find him in them, but he was not there.
For me, there was a mystery in the looking at old photos. In the photograph was a hint of Distance: photographs in black and white represented a contradictory revelation of distance even as they breached the distance of time and place. A presence of the past, or was it the transportation of me in the present to some time now past? That was part of the mystery of photography for me.
I was still pretty young when the family got a Polaroid Swinger. In fact my first photo instruction manual was a book about using the Polaroid. It was a nice switch from the whirr of the Super 8 movie camera I used chronicling the foster babies, but I still ended up photographing the little ones, the foster kids and my second cousins who lived down the street. It was all black and white. There was for me, still a kid, a sense of power in making the little prints. It wasn’t from making something pretty; it was about snatching and fixing a piece of Time, capturing a moment that whirred ever past like the frames of the movie camera. Even with the nearly instant production of the Polaroid print, the moment quickly became the past and the print became an artifact of history as much as an albumen print from a glass plate made in the American Civil War.
In some sense, when one photographs a friend or family member, the photograph bears the implicit shadow of regret, as the moment captured already becomes a moment past, and a moment lost. The baby so fresh and so innocent will quickly become a toddler, then a school girl and so on, and the parent sighs with nostalgia for the little one who now cops an attitude and has pimples and no longer wants to be hugged. The camera can snatch a moment, capture it, but only as a moment past.
To be clear, I am not saying that photography does this inevitably nor always. When I shoot a still life, or close in with the long bellows of the view camera on something small, digging deeper into its presence by enlarging it beyond its normal reality, and then open the shutter for 30 seconds, I am not snatching a moment nor creating a memory. There is no reference to time and its passing even though the process is all about time. There is no sense of memory. I am saying, however, that photography has the power to do those things, and more.
Let me give another example: my Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska were married in 1902 and both died at 45 years of age, long, long before I was born. In fact, I knew their names from my Dad as Ignatius and Frances but little else. They had no faces in my memory, no real presence. After he died, my Dad’s oldest sister brought their original wedding photo from California to Illinois and my cousin Al made slide copies and I got one. For years however, I didn’t look at it. Finally, I decided to scan it and there was Franciska, a pretty, female version of my Dad’s face, and there was Ignatz, who looked so much like me in a photo my Dad made of me when I was sixteen. After living as imaginary mythical figures in my mind for so long, suddenly they were family, enfleshed, connected.
As you perhaps can tell, I have found photography a potent and meaningful medium in my life, both as a taker and as a reader of photographs. If I spend so much time talking about my life it is only because it is an easy channel for me to try to understand the social significance of this medium that is less than 200 years old and yet seems now so natural and normal a part of human culture that it is difficult to imagine its absence. The world never was really black and white and grey but photography has made such a world totally believable. That’s quite a powerful thing to ponder.
End of part 1