Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Well-Meaning Strangers, Dead Twice Over

I once saw a documentary about a French photographer whose name I unfortunately no longer remember. What I do remember is that the photographer used a lot of old "found" photographs in his work and that he said something poignantly beautiful about them: "You die twice in life. The first time is your actual physical death, the second time is when someone picks up your photograph and no one can remember who you are."

I've always loved old photographs. As a child, I used to go through the drawer in the den where my grandmother kept them. All these faces, in black and white, apparently ancestors, though all I knew were a few names; Edgar Poe Swarthout, great great grandfather Robinson, little Edna who someday would be my great grandmother. But did I really know who any of these people were? If I saw them on the street, I would never recognize them. They belonged to me, somehow, and yet I didn't love them.


When I was a teenager, I started collecting old photographs myself, photographs of strangers. Most of them I bought in a musty old junk shop in Berkeley near Bancroft Avenue. I would browse through the boxes of old albums and pictures until I found one that somehow spoke to me. I still have all of these photographs in an ancient ziploc bag, mixed in with some from my own family.


When I separated from my first husband, before I found the courage to finally leave, I subletted an apartment from a morbid, chain-smoking poet on Wissmannstrasse in Neuk├Âlln. I cleaned his apartment (probably the first time in at least ten years- he was neat, but everything was so dirty), wiping yellow nicotine muck from the windows so light could finally enter. For the first time, I put many of my old photographs on the walls, these warm, twice-over dead strangers, staring down at me as though to whisper "You can do it."


When I got the courage and finally left, the bag of photographs disappeared. I looked everywhere, but couldn't find them, sure they had been lost in the move. I mourned their loss. A friend gave me a photograph she had bought in Virginia of an old woman wearing a black hat, the picture mounted on tin. I kept the photograph in the corner of the coal burning stove in my kitchen as a hope that I might someday find new photographs of well-meaning strangers.


When I moved in with my now-husband, already pregnant with our first child, the bag of photographs resurfaced. I found it in a drawer I had searched at least a hundred times and yet I had never found them. This time, I hope they will stay. If they do, someday I will show each one to my daughters and tell them these once were people and now are unknown but that doesn't mean I never loved them.

2 comments:

Caroline said...

Hi, I love old pictures like you do. You were talking about a photographer, it's possibly Christian Boltanski who got presented in the Arte series "CONTACTS" ... Kind regards, Caroline

Schaufensterbabe said...

Thanks for your comment and yes, the documentary was from the series Contacts. Good to have a name for him again!

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