Speaking of Things That May or May Not Have Really Happened
My cousin posted this picture on the internets and I stole it a while back. I stole the entire collection which felt okay to me because they were pictures of my family too and if I were more organized I probably would have already had all of these pictures organized and archived and already floating on the web. So I wasn't stealing my inheritance or my birthright like some Old Testament conniver, I was just stealing his hard work and organization. And that's the capitalist way, right?
So this is a picture of our beloved Grandmother, Grandma Linda. I've written about her elsewhere on this blog, but in keeping with the crisis of authenticity and representation that seems to be defining most of my posts these days, I felt an urge to yammer about this photograph and all it's been evoking in me this week.
So first of all, I love this photograph because of the fact that it's taken on the dock at the cabin -- the only geographical place on the earth that feels like home to me. I have more memories - personal and collective - here than anywhere I've lived or visited. I grew up sitting on this dock, fishing from this dock, diving from the dock, but more than anything else? Sitting on the dock dreamily staring-not-really-looking-though out at Mackinac Bay.
Secondly, I love the aesthetic qualities of this photograph that were, I'm sure, not at all intentionally conceived and executed. These include: the black and white film, the over-exposure in the bottom right hand corner, the white bar framing the photograph and the processing stamp that identified it as a photo from October of 1954, the bent upper right corner and the scalloped edge around the photograph. Most of these qualities can be added to a contemporary photograph through an app that you could download before you finish reading this post. Why would we (collectively, you and I, Dear Reader) have such a jones for these physical qualities that used to be so real and yet are anything-but-real now? I suspect that it has something to do with our growing suspicion that the real is dissipating under the weight of so much simulation and representation. Maybe these uncontrollable qualities that put a distance between the things that happened and the way that they were represented -- essentially the formal inaccuracies of photographic memory -- make us believe that we're seeing a less constructed record of the world? That these distortions represent an undersaturation of photographic evidence and therefore? A bit more authenticity?
But Third (and perhaps unexpectedly, given that reigning cultural predilection toward a nostalgia for the under-constructed-self-representation of yesteryear?) I love how carefully constructed this bit of evidence is. Grandma Linda was a storyteller, and while, in her stories, she depicts the younger versions of herself as a quiet wallflower of a woman -- it has always been hard for me to imagine such a reality. While I was with her she would talk and talk and talk. There were stories of her growing up years on the Island, stories of being an in-law in the garrulous Rudd family, stories of my own father's boyhood adventures, stories of her sisters and their families and stories of the children from the poor sections of Sault Ste. Marie who became her own evangelical soul-saving projects. And when she wasn't telling stories? She was crafting a record of the life that she lived. During her life she created (literally) hundreds of photo albums: full of photos, report cards, magazine pictures, headlines, letters, postcards, school projects, church bulletins and newspaper clippings. Some of these letters were just collections of the voluminous letters she wrote -- perfect palmer script narrating some mundane bit of life accompanied by a simple photograph and then mimeographed at the local public library and sent out en masse to distant family members and even missionaries around the globe. (I've written before that I believe these missives to be a clear antecedent to blogging in general, and, of course, to my own blogging).
And the storytelling in this picture is so wonderful. While the picture must have been taken by her husband Edward or perhaps (?) one of her young sons? (aged nine and eleven in 1954), the caption is clearly written by her. But not SIMPLY written by her. Because this printing is far more casual (maybe even more masculine? and matter of fact?) than her typical flowing calligraphy. And she writes about herself in the third person
"Linda having coffee, with dogs hovering round"
If she's like me at all (and I know her to be so), she had a profound realization when she saw this photograph: Oh Look! Here's an unplanned moment that captures me in a mostly flattering light. The un-posed peacefulness of the dogs, the accidentally closed eyes, the coffee cup, paused mid-sip -- these are all guarantors of the Reality of this scene! And wonder of wonders, I don't look embarrassingly awful!
Which is of course, as you know, first-hand, Dear Reader, NOT what we usually think of photographs that are snapped of us when reality is just flowing, unplanned around us. Usually there are embarrassing double chins, smiles too intense demonstrating probably that we don't have quite enough social grace to be called "poised," and / or that feeling somewhere between embarrassment and boredom when we recognize our "picture-face" so predictably predictable showing up yet again in precisely the same incredibly average and unremarkable way - not an addition to the world really, just a social fact that's about as useful and exciting as one particular sheet of toilet paper is on one particular roll of toilet paper amongst the thousands of toilet paper rolls that are waiting in the thousands of grocery stores in thousands of cities in thousands of places. Just normal predictable, unremarkable us.
In fact, Grandma Linda often used this more detached impartial hand - voice in her captions of photographs mounted in albums. Why not the cursive script? Why not the first-person? Was she aware that two or three generations hence these photographs would fall into the hands of great-great-great-grandchildren who would not be able to distinguish who she was from the another photograph of another thirty-something relative from some other branch in the family, sitting at a picnic table in 1954? Was it because she had finally, as an adult, found a number of pictures of her own mother's family in Finland, all as mysterious a cypher as most of her history, since her mother had died when she was barely three and any information she had of her was as wispy and fragmentary as the hints of memory that she tried to summon of her mother's face or that cabin where they had briefly lived together in the idyllic woods of Drummond Island before it had burned down and her father had remarried? Was she trying to hold steady this image of herself: peaceful, serene and smiling at a time of her life that immediately preceded her admittance to Northern Michigan Asylum for the first of several stays?
All of this yearning - for legacy, for peace, for stability, for authenticity, for beauty - it's all captured in this photo, but like every photo, these meanings are as much in the layers of seeing and framing, of remembering and guessing as they are in the particulars of this one moment that is accidentally imbued with such personal and cultural implications.