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The Strange Lure of Other People’s Photos

Not every shot is so mysterious. I have photos from the 1920s of people doing pretty much the same things we do today: drinking booze, kissing, cross-dressing, picnicking by a pond, holding their children in the air with a love so fierce you can feel it a hundred years later.

Of course, those children are gone now. As is everyone sitting around that long table as the sun sets and the glasses clink. They lived, worked, made their share of bad decisions, loved a bunch and surely suffered some. But these “everyday” photos haunt me for the simple reason that I have pictures just like them, where I am the full-eyed father stretching my own children toward a brilliant blue sky. Images like this hang all over my house, reminding me of moments when my heart felt full to bursting. I love these pictures.

I also hate them. They remind me of time going by. They remind me of what I had and what’s gone. These pictures warn me how fast and fragile those moments are. There’s my son learning to ride a tricycle; as I write this, he’s driving across the country with his girlfriend. Probably speeding. Get out of the way, these pictures say; something new is coming. They leave me wobbly, unsure whether to look forward or back.

Which is why at moments of uncertainty and confusion, I turn to my gray boxes of found photos. When it looked as if Covid-19 would swallow New York, I pulled a box off the shelf. “I need to categorize the new finds,” I told my girlfriend. She arched her eyebrows. Even I didn’t buy that line. Those hundred-year-old photos center me. They give me something that my own photos don’t. When I look at the found photos and consider all that these people lived through — world wars, the Depression, epidemics with no medicine, loss and hardship I can hardly grasp — I’m given a far longer view. They take me out of myself, make my pangs of the heart feel less about me and more about all of us.

I get emotional when I look at them, but not in the same way as I do the photos of my children. With my own photos, I hear the fast ticking of the secondhand. The old pictures keep a more steady time: humanity’s slow and sweeping waltz.

It’s not lost on me that the only reason I’m able to pluck these beautiful images from some forlorn flea-market bin and meditate on the lives that came before mine is that they were discarded. Did the younger generation not recognize that child on the porch as their great-grandma? Did they know but not care? And then this question arises: Will I be the last person on Earth to ever see her face?

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