08 April 2010


When I was young, I was enthralled by the idea of "legacy." I loved the way the word sounded, and I loved what it signified. From the first time I set foot into an antique store, I wanted to live in history.

While I was on holiday in California, I went through two big apple boxes of family photos, stretching back to the Swedish and Norwegian immigrants that settled in the Dakotas and camped their way to the central valley of California at the beginning of the twentieth century:
I do not know who took most of these pictures or, indeed, often who their subjects are, but they fascinate, startle, and sadden me just a bit:

When I look at these photographs, I cannot help but realize how their content shaped me, how they informed my vision, even before I saw them. Is there something that runs in my blood, the blood of these people that wrenches my heart in bleak landscapes? Something that piques my interest naturally when I come across another person with that odd, lurching, twisted height of my great-great-grandfather Osmund? Even before seeing the photograph of "Girls in White," as my mother has so poignantly named it, was there some unconscious familiarity with its subjects that causes fascination--and a little fear--at the sight of a little girl in a white dress?

Earlier this semester, I read Roland Barthes' La Chambre Claire, a meditation on why the photographs that affect us do affect us, in which he explains that the pictures that interest have two qualities that we find attractive. There is the studium, the over-arching interest in history, in costume, in people and personalities that originally draws us; then, there is the punctum, the "prick" that haunts us afterward. The strange white goats on the running board (why goats? why so small?). The small, round glasses on great-great Aunt Nordisse, set above small, round mouth (she owned the only camera in the family for a while). The drooping, walrussy, Nietzsche-esque moustache on Norman Qualle in the sleigh (did he, like Nietzsche, insist that the ladies loved it?). These are the punctums that draw me to these mysterious photographs.

I'm off now to take some photographs of my own, posted probably tomorrow. I wonder whether, years from now, they will have some strange effect on a little girl, a great-great-granddaughter of mine, who will ask herself, "Is this why I well up when I smell tulip trees? "

1 comment:

Mum said...

Or that same great-great granddaughter may discover a cache of poems that take her breath away with their romantic imagery, and be astounded that they were written by her lovely ancestor...