I have a series of photo albums that I brought back from my last visit to my great aunt. My family comes from a small town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. These albums reach back to mother’s childhood there and further back to my grandmother’s, with an occasional stray portrait of my great grandmother in her 20s. The pictures telescope into my family’s past and show the devolution of this southern town that was once the furniture capital of the world.
I get to see my mother celebrate her seventh birthday at the local recreation center. I get to see my great grandmother’s two bedroom house, white with black shutters and a bush flowering with pink buds in the front yard, before the bottom fell out of her middle class black neighborhood.
A lot of the little details of my family’s life have been lost to old age or not asking the right questions. I am the steward of this spotty history. As long as I have keep these albums, I have evidence of where I’m from. My favorite among them is of my mother as a skinny little girl in a matching mauve jacket and skirt with a nice little purse over her shoulder. It’s the late 60s, as far as she can guess. She smiles at the camera from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, a visit she doesn’t remember making now that she’s 57.
Pictures like the one of mom are standout in the album not only because of their charm but because they are legible. Many of the photographs are fuzzy. It would hardly be worth guessing who is in them. Flipping through the yellowing pages, peering through the now brittle plastic sleeves at my aunt’s house, I thought, “Why bother? Of course they didn’t know they were out of focus when the shutter clicked, but why not toss them when they came back from the printers? How do blurs commemorate anything!”
Every once in awhile I’ll find myself arguing with someone about the humorless people in every photograph from the turn of the last century. It’s easy to look into their eyes and feel a ghostly chill. It’s easy to assume those people captured in an albumen print or tintype were just miserable. But really it had more to do with exposure time.
When people sat for portraits they sat and were still for longer than anyone is now. It wasn’t a snap. Smiling would be tiring and even the slightest movement could ruin the image. Photographs were meant to be likenesses, to be faithful records of reality. Of course things were staged, props were employed for decorative and symbolic effect, but the motives were more innocent or simple then than now. A photograph was a bridge across distance and time from one person to another rather than a play for admiration.
My family, half a century later, must have been motivated similarly. It didn’t matter if every third picture in the album looked like it was taken during an earthquake, they were proof of life. And at the time they did know who was in them. For whichever relative who kept them, these pictures vibrated with the energy of the moments they represented.
Still, they’re odd to look at. What history am I am guarding? What story do I tell? I’ve thought about making a new album of just the good pictures. It’s a tough call though, because the albums are period too — little ugly leatherette books in shades of green and ochre. For this, the historian in me wants to preserve these capsules of time. Then again, the faces I cannot read tell me that the past should be left behind, that for everything I recover, countless unknowns remain.
The blurry faces guard the past from me. And if they want to be forgotten, I should respect that, accept that. There is still plenty left to hold on to. What I have learned, like how my great grandmother once had a snowball fight in her front yard, I get to keep. I can append my memory of her.
It’s unlikely that I will throw out the bad photographs, out of respect more than anything. That said, they stir a feeling that we often kick dirt over, that things get lost and end and often without reason. There should be a way to value what’s gone while accepting its departure, not as a failure, not as something to nip at our own mortality or diminish the meaning we assign to our own lives, but to show that what we experience when no one is paying attention or seems to understand is no less important.