My answer to the first assignment of what's sure to be a great forthcoming semester. Here's what I wrote, some bits and pieces taken from previous blog postings, brought together by water.
I bought my first photograph when I was a senior in college at an antique mall in Asheville, North Carolina with my girlfriend Margaret and her little sister Flynn. It was of a family standing in lake water up to their chests, the matriarch and an aged man seated in a wooden rowboat behind them, a small boy dogpaddling off towards the other shore. It was the idea of these people standing in their wool bathing suits for an hour in front of a 4 x 5 camera, the low perspective of the shot and the shifting focus of the surface of the water that convinced it to go home with me. After college I moved to Portland, Oregon where I continued to buy old photographs, mostly cabinet cards of pretty young women or uncomfortable babies, people that I would have liked to know. I organized them into albums by type, theme, by the gender and age of their subjects, by the era of their production. I was interested in the biography of their images and the handwriting on their backs, aware of the feeling that these stories were somehow part of my story too.
The same year I found that photograph I lost my mother’s father and then my father’s mother. I had been working on a series of drawings of their personal collections, drawings whose meaning were articulated when those objects lost their ownership. The French verb, souvenir, means in English “to remember.” But the word more literally translates to mean “to come from under” which suggests to me a submersion into the depths of memory and a resurfacing in a familiar place. The objects my grandparents left behind, souvenirs of their experience, glimmered under the water and my own narcissistic inquiry pulled me in.
Every home is a museum of personal identity. The rooms are strategized to fit a family, the furniture comes with stories of acquisition, the walls are adorned with trophies and tales of origin, the composition lace with priorities, beliefs, ethics and expectations. For my grandparents’ era, the home was composed by the wives, the layout telling their version of the story of who we were and where we are going. In Mimi’s suburban Indianapolis home, a house built in the 1960’s to look like a New England colonial manor, the walls were devoted to historical prints and drawings. My father has stories of her picking him up at college and having to share his seat in the car from Connecticut to Indiana with antique dressers, porcelain plate sets, thatched baskets and Adirondack rocking chairs. In Grammy’s canal-shored Long Island home the house is decorated with a similar affect but the imagery is less land-locked and almost entirely devoted to the sports of fishing and boating. The furniture is pastel and wicker, the floor covered with a light-colored sensible carpet, the pictures on the walls always featuring the water as a prominent character.
When I looked through family photographs in both of these homes I was stunned by the lack of information they provided about the lives of my grandparents. Photography having only become affordably accessible to middle-class families in the 40’s and 50’s the beginnings of the lives of my grandparents were almost wholly undocumented, to the exclusion of some staged formal portraits. In pursuit of a reason for my own obsession with the family photographs of strangers I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, a book in which he talks about the power of images to invoke memory. In one chapter he wrote of his experience flipping through familiar scrapbook photographs of his mother’s life after her death and coming across a picture of his mother as a four year old standing in a garden during winter. He muses on how and why this one specific picture, taken twenty years before he was born, seemed to supply the most truthful image of his mother, albeit in a state he had never known. When flipping through Mimi’s photo albums keenly labeled “The Baldwin Family” I was disappointed to find that they began with pictures of my father as a baby. There are no pictures of her and my grandfather at home during the years between their wedding and birth of their first child—not even pictures of her pregnant with him. It was disappointing and strange for me, as a queer-identified post-feminist and individual with a permanent health condition to discover that documentation attributed the beginning of their identity to their production of a child.
After living in Portland for a year I got a gig dusting and organizing at an estate sale store once a week for trade. Sellers would come to the store with cheap polaroids of furniture and belongings that they hoped to hock, which I started keeping, interested in the casual bluntness of these photographs—their total ignorance of composition, the wan colors and washed-out details, the voids of information where the Polaroid had failed or the photographers finger crept into the frame. The accidents and unintentional information in these pictures seemed to suggest a much more interesting and potentially unscripted narrative of who these people were and where they were going.
After my grandparents died their secrets were unveiled. My father told me that Mimi, a woman known for her intense control and sobriety, had suffered from breast cancer years prior and that months before her death, at age 82, she had been convinced by a doctor to reverse her age by receiving a facelift. On the other side of my family, my grandfather died having kept his Type II diabetes a secret for over a decade, even from his wife. My parents were each hurt by this information in their own way, but for me it seemed to finally validate my feeling of disconnection from who my grandparents were and it was this unknowingness that liberated me to finally be able to imagine them outside of their identities as grandparents. I realized that the photographs I had been collecting were not so much photographs of strangers but perhaps more photographs of myself—each one selected as a souvenir of something that seemed vaguely familiar, just under the surface of the water, the truth told slant, blurred by the fluidity of memory.