Arts & Life

A Future for the Past – Notebook, April 2011

Written by Steve Kennedy | Mar 25, 2011 2:35 PM

When my wife gave me a photo scanner for Christmas, she didn’t know she was unleashing a monster that had been lurking down in the basement, docile, for years. It is a monster with thousands of tentacles. They are my slides.

I took my first slides with a Brownie Hawkeye camera around 1960, when my parents were in their late 20s. That first roll included a classic shot of my brother wearing a raincoat, ear-lugged hat and boots, fishing in a mud puddle with a stick, string and safety pin.

With a Kodak Instamatic and finally a 35mm camera, I took mostly slides until the ’80s. In the meantime, I had accumulated quite a pile of family portraits, local scenic shots and travel slides from four continents. For many years they sat in boxes in an attic or basement, rarely viewed, and then only held up against a light source. If these memories were to have any future, I needed to digitalize them.

Being suddenly immersed so deeply in one’s past after a long hiatus has been perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to time travel. There are images of people and places I haven’t thought about for years, some now unfamiliar, others so real I feel I could talk to them. I might not recognize the people some of my photo subjects have since become. About others I know the general outline of their lives since the moment on that image, but nothing about how they would evaluate it.

And of course some have remained part of my life, and I know their present so well that their past sometimes startles me. My mother was so pretty, my father almost looked cool at times — I never knew!

There are also photos of me: with my first VW Beetle; on the Arc de Triomphe; beside a lake in the Rockies; biking on the Irish coast. In these pictures, I am always with family, or friends, or interesting people I’ve met on the road. And if I’m alone it’s in an exotic or scenic place. My life, compressed like this, looks uniformly satisfying, fascinating and exciting.

What is missing is the time in between. There are no pictures that show the uncertainty, the fears, the conflicts, the loneliness, the confusion, the failures. Losses are only alluded to by the presence of who or what was later lost. Blunders are recorded only when I laughed about them at the time or knew I would later. These photos show me happy at home and happy on the road, though the great conflict between wanderlust and homesickness that dominated a decade of my life is nowhere apparent. Even people who once drove me up a wall don’t look so bad in digital form.

I’ve been loading some of these slides onto various social websites, partly in the interest of preservation. Some of them have blotches, patches of emulsion flaked off and other ravages of storage in an attic that experienced extremes of temperature. On the Web, they may be downloaded by, or at least stored in the memories of, people who see them, and hence not entirely lost.

There are images I’ve posted with only a few specific people in mind — family members, perhaps, or friends who were there at the time, or my wife, who has never seen many of these photos. But I also share them for the same reason that every writer writes — for the joy of telling a story, in words, in pictures, or both.

I’m sometimes surprised by reactions to certain photos. I tend to expect the most stunning scenery, or the most exotic places, to elicit the greatest interest. Yet people also comment on old family photos of people they don’t know. Often a connection to the viewer’s own experience is mentioned — they recall similar photos of their own parents, or relate to an item of clothing, a landmark or a car similar to one they had, or travel photos remind someone of a place they’ve been, and not necessarily the one in the picture.

This is encouraging, because telling a story, when it is done even marginally well, isn’t exclusively about the teller. Each of us has, if not a crate of slides, at least a trunk of stories, hidden away somewhere in the basement or attic of our minds and hearts. Once in a while, for our sake and others’, we need to go and dig them out.

Published in Notebook

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