After the death of my father some years ago I became the curator of the family photographs. Dad and Mum had collected them throughout their lives, stuffed individually and often anonymously into boxes and biscuit tins or mounted and labelled carefully in old leather-covered albums. There’s my older brother’s baby book, framed wedding photographs, wallets of holiday snaps from unknown destinations and hundreds of single images of who knows who. Sometimes there’s a scrawled name on the back, but often there are no clues about the identities of the individual or group of people caught in fading sepia.
The old black and white ones are the most interesting. Who were these people, these random collections of unidentified humanity? The stiffly posed captains of industry, the unsmiling family groups, the cherubic children sitting on cushions? And who decided their images were worth preserving? Photography was an expensive pastime in the days before celluloid brought it within the grasp of the masses, so who footed the bill for the studio?
There are the usual questions to ask:
- Where was that saluting soldier when the camera shutter clicked?
- When was the photograph taken?
- Was he in a war-zone, perhaps in the desert, or innocently posing on the beach during an off-duty moment?
- Was he someone’s father, brother or son? Or all three?
- What about that woman posing on the sea front with the wind whipping her hair? Was she a mother? She looks as if she hasn’t got a care in the world, but looks can be deceptive. Maybe she was deeply troubled, unhappy with her life, and just putting on a smile for the camera.
There’s a lovely photograph of a couple posing on the town hall steps on their big day, late 1940s. The expression on the woman’s face is enigmatic. Is it relief? As I scrutinised the photograph, the writer’s imagination stirred and other questions occurred.
- Why the town hall and not the parish church?
- Is this woman keeping a secret?
- Does she seem confident or unbearably shy?
- Was theirs a workplace romance, or were they childhood sweethearts?
- Does her new husband have a serious character flaw that she’s only just discovered?
- Will the expense of this one day plunge them into a debt they will struggle to repay?
- Will they live happily ever after?
There are many, many more like this, all with their own stories to tell. Sadly the truth is lost in the mists of time, but I can make up different realities for all these characters. This is what writers do. So I’ll pack all the loose photographs and albums back into the box, but this time I won’t push it to the back of the wardrobe or shove it up in the attic. I’ll keep it handy for the next time I need some inspiration.
Photos do stimulate the imagination and they are so difficult to destroy, even if you don’t know the people. All of ours are on a hard drive now. It’s not the same, somehow.
No, I much prefer to leaf through the actual photos, creases and all! You can feel the age and guess how often they’ve been handled. It’s not the same experience on a screen.
The woman on the Town Hall steps was pregnant. They will have a long life together because people didnt give up on their marriages in those days.
You’re probably right, Raewyn, but I wonder if it was a happy one?