"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Saturday, February 07, 2009

old photos

Looking at the photographs of Homer Page from 1949 and getting ready to visit my father inspired me to look through some old family snapshots today.

You’ve probably got the same ones – different faces, different locations, but I bet they’re similar in many ways. Have you ever thought about how incredible some of these pictures are – and how they surely must shape the way we “see” the world around us even now?

I think these particular images from the early 50's are amazing. They were probably taken by my parents and older brothers, none of whom had any particular interest in picture making beyond documenting some of the details of our family’s life: the neighbor kids, the grandparents, gatherings with aunts and uncles, family vacations, birthday parties, etc. I suppose I was drawn to these specific photographs because I would be thrilled to have them in my own portfolio as a fine art photographer today.

Do they succeed on a visual level out of pure luck on the part of the photographer? Or do I simply deem them successful (and am I reaching?) because of my art school educated eye?

Whoever took this picture of the Smoky Mountains from the ski lift (my dad, most likely) was probably unhappy that the woman on the left snuck into the frame. Of course, that’s what I think gives the picture its magical structure and what leads your eye into the rest of the frame. You can’t help but wonder if those are skis attached to her feet, but then you realize she’s in shorts (probably summer), and there is no snow: it’s actually just a cable. The wiring from the lift and the cable below create an insanely perfect juxtaposition, framing the misty, mountainous landscape beyond. The two figures, passing one another give us a sense of intrigue and mystery. It’s odd on some levels and ultimately very beautiful. Any of us would be hard pressed to make such a perfect photograph.

How about the Arbus quality of the picture of my grandfather, father and brother; the strange, haunting and wonderful (again, sort of Arbus-like) snapshot of my brother, who is probably standing on a chair or someone’s shoulders behind the hand-painted body of a gorilla? These are the pictures that fill our family albums; these are the pictures I refer to when I look for visual clues of what my family was like back in the day. These are the pictures that have probably even informed the way I see, since I have looked at these and others like them for many, many years.

The one of the girl bouncing the basketball is probably my favorite of this group. I doubt that the photographer (maybe my older brother) was aware of all the circles in this scene: the ball, the girl’s head. the head of the man walking behind her, the light attached to the garage, its shadow… and then the spherical thing propped up against the garage door. It was surely all so serendipitous but what an incredible picture!

Finally, the photograph of the boy holding the umbrella. It’s a picture of our next-door neighbor, made even before I was even born. (He’s a successful lawyer now.) I love the way his feet are cut off, how the curve of the umbrella mirrors the curve of the nearby tree, how the background to the right recedes gently into the distance toward a row of trees that echo the column of the house, how the light illuminates the fabric of the umbrella, and particularly I love his mad expression which is subtly offset by the graceful tilt of his right hand. It’s a picture I could have made last week – if only I were so lucky.

These inspire me.

I thank the people who took them. And thank my mom for keeping them labeled and dated in a box in our basement.

1 comment:

Max F. said...

I love the image of Pawpaw, Mike (right?) and your grandfather. Can we look through some photo albums when we're in Lexington?