Monday, January 24, 2011

Photography and Memory

My Grandmother's Siblings circa 1903
Clark, George, and Alice Sheley

They say you can’t go home again, and for the most part, this is true. When I visit our family property I no longer feel the same connection with the place I once did. But there is one tangible way we can revisit the past: through pictures. When I look at pictures of our family home I am immediately carried back to the time and place when the image was captured. Photographs are deeply entwined with our memories.

Perhaps even more interesting is a photograph’s ability to carry us to a time and place we have never witnessed first hand. The pictures I have shared above are two of my favorites out of all of our old family photographs. The story, as I remember my grandmother telling it, is that a photographer was traveling through the area. He wanted to take a picture of my grandmother’s siblings in the doorway of their home “on top of the hill.” (The family would later move down the mountain to live with my grandmother’s grandparents in the house pictured below.) My grandmother was either a baby, or not born yet, so she is not in the picture. But she would talk about the pictures as if she were there when they were taken. Helen (my great-grandmother) was concerned that her daughter’s hair wasn’t combed. You can see she appears to be fretting in the first picture – with a comb clasp in her left hand and her right hand pressed to her cheek in dismay. Of course we can’t actually see Helen’s face, but after hearing my grandmother tell the story, I can picture it. The children are oblivious to their mother’s concern and are enraptured with the novelty of having their picture taken. In the second picture, Helen has her way and combs her daughter’s hair.

I don’t really know which photograph was taken first. But we tend to add our own narrative to everything we see, and these images are so evocative...

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