A few years ago I was browsing in a little antique shop and saw a tattered wicker basket filled with photos. I sat down in a chair much older than me and started flipping through the photos. My family has very few old pictures as my mother and father grew up very poor- and the few pictures they took or had taken were an extravagance. So, looking at the worn sepia and black and white images, actually holding them in my hands, fascinated me.
I remember vividly coming across a wedding photo, the bride and groom’s apparel hinting at the era they belonged to. The picture was in a heavy cardboard frame that folded with a flap like a greeting card to reveal the picture inside.
I stared at that couple, the nervousness on the bride’s face, the humorous look of boredom on the groom’s. I turned over the photo to find the studio and the year the photo was taken, but no trace of a hint as to the identity of the people in the picture.
Even then, I couldn’t explain to myself why I wanted to buy it, but I did. And I started a little collection of vintage photos that I have added to over the years.
At first I thought I would just collect old wedding photos, and started keeping my eyes open when I traveled or wherever I saw an antique store—especially one I hadn’t been to yet. But then, as I sifted through photos over the years, others would speak to me somehow—a group of men photographed for a formal occasion with tan lines across their foreheads from working outdoors in hats, a seemingly ancient schoolroom with children all dressed in their Sunday best-looking solemnly into the camera, a sepia photograph of a mother holding her baby in her arms-gazing at her with such love and intention that it almost made me weep.
Without fail, I always wonder how these pictures have ended up where they are. I sit in a small damp store surrounded by items discarded or sold from another generation, and have trouble understanding. I can see tables and mirrors, knick knacks and dishes finding their way to a store a lifetime later, but family photos? Photos of weddings, christenings, holiday photos—how do those get separated from the family?
Having gone to many an estate sale in my time, I know that the odds and ends of a family can find their way to the auction block or for sale after everyone has picked through and chosen the things they want from family members that have passed. But these intimate photos stare back at me from another era and I have to wonder how they landed in my photo box—what journey brought them here and how did they get lost in the first place?
So there is some weird pull that I feel, almost to give these photos, these families a resting place.
The photos that I do have of my family, my grandparents, and my childhood photos are precious to me—even with my background with my family—it’s the history of those photos that mean something to me. Watching from one generation to the next as my parents left poverty to build an upper middle class life when the odds and their lack of education made that seem impossible. Seeing my grandmother’s eyes return in my mother’s face and then in mine. Seeing the resemblance of cousins, aunts, and great grandmothers in the mirrored reflection I see every morning. And maybe most importantly, seeing how my parents grew up—even with just a few photos—when trying to make sense of who they are…who we are.
I love looking into the eyes of these strangers and trying to imagine who these people were, what their lives were like, where they ended up, who they became, what they were thinking in the moment the camera clicked. I won’t have answers for any of these questions I am sure, but I keep collecting these pieces of history and adding them to my photo box, wondering what mystery I will find next.