I wrote last week about some of the more interior aspects of sorting through old junk and encountering significant mementos, and (as you might imagine) the same thing has happened several times with photographs.
This will be a short and uncharacteristically closed-off column. One of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite writers, David Vestal, is "I'm in the disclosure business." My typical stance is honesty and a typical strategy is to reveal what I'm thinking—another favorite quote comes from the great Carol Gilligan, the feminist psychologist: "I've found that if I say what I'm really thinking and feeling, people are more likely to say what they really think and feel. The conversation becomes a real conversation."
But some things are private, and should stay that way. This relates to what psychologists call "boundaries," or "borders"—the bulwarks between your different roles in your own life and other peoples' roles in yours. My psychologist brother Scott, who also tallies in my life as a great friend, likes the formulation of "thin" or "thick" borders as a way of talking about how good people are at naturally respecting these separations. I have thin borders—not dysfunctionally so, and not such that it disfigures my life, except slightly and occasionally. But still.
I can say that I have been on a journey lately—one of those rich, adventurous times when living seems accelerated and life is deep and full—we are lucky if we have a handful of such episodes on our way from dust to dust—and on at least two occasions, old photographs have been central to interior events that have been very important to my thinking, my emotions, and the process.
And it's interesting what those old photographs are. One is an old 4x5 Polaroid print that I found under an antique dresser I have (the dresser originated from my great-grandmother's house—I inherited it from my grandmother). I know the stack of Polaroids it came from—and how it got separated from its mates and found its way to a forgotten corner of the floor is a mystery to me. When I found it it was covered with dust.
The others are two photographs of my first dog, Beaujolais, Beaujy for short, who entered my life (as near as I can reconstruct) in the Spring of the year I was ten, and left it again in the Fall of the year when I was 11. I have only two photographs of him, although it's possible that other photographs exist somewhere. They are two views of him taken near the same time, in the same place, but from two different angles. Both are Kodak Instamatic snapshots that would have been developed and printed by the old Bay Point Pharmacy in what is now called the River Point shopping center, between Bayside and River Hills, near the northern edge of Milwaukee County. Nobody on earth knows the story of Beaujy but me, not one soul, and trying (and peculiarly failing) to tell it led to an epiphany for me.
All three are photographic ephemera—by themselves, not compelling. They have none of the strange numinous magic old snapshots can sometimes exude. But all three have changed my life profoundly recently, in ways I could explain explicitly if I had a month and thirty thousand words in which to do it. But it's private; you understand.
What it does usefully point up for our purposes here, however, on a small blog about photography, is that the life of a photograph can be fundamentally and essentially just the deepest of mysteries. They take their own voyages. Some become famous, many become lost, most trace some sort of arc in the world—which if they could be plotted might be jagged graphs of purpose, importance, meaning, worth, significance, memory, rising and falling. (I do take joy in looking in on some of them to see if I can trace some subset of their paths.) The fact that for the vast majority of photographs this graph flatlines quickly and permanently should not blind us to the astonishing richness that these talismans, albeit rarely, have the power to hold.
The wonderful and beautiful Teresa N., a relative of a relative. In normal circumstances, the graph of the life of the two photographs she's holding, taken for utilitarian purposes of identification, would have been unremarkable: a low-grade usefulness for a few years, flatlining to nothing. But as it is, her Polish Catholic parents were victims of the Holocaust, and these are the only photographs of them to survive, so their importance and meaning have traced a very different arc through time. I made a set of copy photographs for her twenty years ago (the originals are much smaller) and she has given a set to each of her children.
Perhaps you would be good enough to supply your own ending to this piece, the nice sentence or two that properly sums up and wraps up a short snippet of idle musing like this. I have chores to do, so I think I'll just leave it here. See you again soon.
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