Recently I took possession of an album of family photos, from my father’s side of the family. It’s always sort of weird to look at old family photos. There’s the people you only knew when they were old, and in the photos they are young. Photos of people who died long before you were born. Photos of people with people you know, and you have no idea who they are, and there’s no one around who remembers. The pictures of people in the 1960s and 70s, and you can no longer believe that people ever thought it was a good idea to dress that way. The oldest ones are the best, in some ways, taken in the days when cameras were still not common and posing for a portrait was a special occasion. Later, more people had their own and they became much more casual with their use. But the idea of taking lots and lots of pictures and just keeping the good ones was still far away. Clearly, at least some people, by which I mean my relatives, had the notion that you had to keep everything, no matter what. Like this photo. Someone, probably my grandmother (but I can’t be certain), taped this down into the album, and did not think, this picture is no good, I should just throw it away.
So I wonder, who is this guy? Where is his head? Who are the women at the top of the stairs? The kid at the bottom might be my father. This might be Dorchester in 1947. But apparently the photographer couldn’t decide who to aim at, so decided to split the difference, and also the necks. It is sometimes said that one of the differences between traditional and digital photography is that the archival quality of digital is unproven. Will you or your descendants be able to find and/or read your files in sixty years? On the other hand, your descendants will be spared these enigmas. No one will laugh at your clothes or hairstyle. Does it really matter if the photos are saved, but the meaning is not?
The photo does have a nice sort of surreal quality to it, a guy with no head and a kid with no body. Maybe they go together? Perhaps my grandmother thought this was funny. It was unlikely the intent of the person with the camera, but sometimes that’s the best way.