Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Excitement of Photographs

Maybe there are only some of us who "get" photography in this way while the rest of the world goes merry and oblivious on its way, but I still get excited when I encounter a pile of unknown photographs - especially those from another age.

A lady came into our Archive today looking for a home for two thick albums - one of photographs and the other of postcards.

They belonged to her great aunt and covered the life of some of the early Francophone settlers in the Canadian West from the late 19th to early 20th Century. The album of photographs - perhaps 100 - had many studio photographs, along with other snapshots.

The album of postcards (perhaps 200) had some commercial photographs - everything from Edmonton to New York to Montreal to Paris. It also had lots of personal photographs printed and sent on postcard paper. There all sorts of messages and stories on the backs, along with a few poems obviously - in combination - meant to woo some young lady.

The point for me (or at least one) was that looking through them I was full of excitiement and anticipation to see what the next page would reveal. Two young men photogrpahed in a studio set-up - palm treed landscape background, the pair of them sat at a small round table, whisky and cards in hand; or the strange faded hand colouring of postcards from 1915; or a personal photograph printed as a postcard of beautiful french farmhouse in Normandy; a family on a rustic picnic - again in France - children, adults, and some heavy duty cast iron cookware hanging over a fire - and many more.

Of course none are scanned yet (so a few images from elsewhwere for now) and there is intriguing work to come identifying people and places based on the basic information we have on the owner and her life. But encountering the traces and stories trapped in the image and text is like suddenly falling into the middle of a novel - one where I have no idea yet how it ends (or if it ends).

(images LoC)


Jon-Phillip Sheridan said...

where do you work? I love old photographs

Stan B. said...

Yup, absolutely amazing what indelible secrets some of those old relics have captured and retained for time travelers such as ourselves.

Anonymous said...

I do have to agree with Tim Atherton about the excitement of coming across an undiscovered or overlooked pile of photographs, whether they be of one’s own making or just someone else’s photographs. All of a sudden, there is something new to figure out, something new to analyze, something new to research, tear apart, bit by bit, figuring out every new detail.
Old photographs certainly allow viewers, or historians or collectors or what have you, to figure something out about the past that they did not previously know. Whether it be about the area around them and how it’s changed, or about someone or a group of people they didn’t previously know about. Old photographs that haven’t been seen before by a single individual is much like receiving the first brand new copy of a history book.
It’s just that. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It let’s us figure things out about the past that we didn’t previously know.

Luis said...

The decontextualization of old found photographs sends the brain into Bayesian hyperdrive. The real secrets are within us. In posing the problems we encounter dealing with this type of photograph, we end up confronting Gaugin's questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

"It is photons bouncing o ff the paper and hitting your retina while
you read this essay that make this sentence be part of your past."

[Fotini Markopolou]

And so photographs, whether our own or not, likewise become part of our past.

--- Luis

Nelle said...

how is this picture made old?
in my camera I have only sepia and black and white options is there another camera that does it, mine is a Panasonic - Lumix DMC-TZ4