Young North Carolinian in an old Ford, Person County, North Carolina, by Dorothea Lange, July 1939, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The photographer in these family photographs has only a spectral presence, but he or she is nevertheless an “insider,” a member of the family or community being documented. Traditional documentary photographers, no matter how tactful and self-effacing, still confront ethical dilemmas about prying into the lives of other people. They must navigate the vast chasms of class, cultural power, and sometimes race. These tensions and divides, even when they remain unspoken or unnoticed, shape the relationship between photographer and subject, and color the style and content of the photograph. Had Walker Evans simply dropped off a couple of cameras for the tenant families to use to document their lives as they pleased, would we know more about the predicaments of their “human divinity,” which the writer James Agee stated as one of the purposes of his collaboration with Evans that summer?4 Would we learn more about America during the 1930s and 1940s by looking through the often-haphazard archives of family photographs found in homes across the country than by studying the 170,000 images FSA photographers produced during the same period?
A photograph’s enduring value, of course, does not come from its ability to convey things as they are or were. The past seen within the frame is always a mirage. We take—and return to—photographs for another kind of truth, one that is hardly historical or universal but based on a personal, emotional, and aesthetic experience. Our visceral response to a photograph can come from its compositional beauty or the sublimity of the scene. In the case of snapshot images, like most family photographs, that emotional response comes from a recognition or feeling of connection to the people seen in the picture. When I look at my family’s photographs I tie together the stories I have heard about the people in the pictures with whatever hints of personality, character, and circumstance I can glean from the image. Through imagination, I transform family members I was too young to know, or who now only exist in my memory, from flat figures in a photograph to people I can still see, hear, and touch. I see in my great-grandmother, as she stands before her house or finds a moment of relaxation on the porch, a face that betrays strong emotion—a fortitude born of a deep Baptist faith, of years of unending work on the farm, of sadness from losing children at birth and from influenza, of heartbreak because of a husband renowned for drinking and carousing, of worry for her children whether they were hunting possum at night or invading a place called Inchon in Korea. I hear her toward the end of her life, now under the care of a loving daughter, son-in-law, and sons, as she rocks in her chair in the living room of the family home-place, dipping snuff and spitting into a metal coffee container while watching Perry Mason. She lived to be ninety-one and never left North Carolina.
We take—and return to—photographs for another kind of truth, one that is hardly historical or universal but based on a personal, emotional, and aesthetic experience.
These imaginative acts are aided by holding the photograph, touching its creases, tears, and dog-eared corners, smelling the scents it has collected over eighty years sitting in shoeboxes or quilt-covered trunks. Holding, touching, and smelling a family photograph, one in which everyone seen is now gone, gives it an almost sacred quality, like a relic. It is a tangible memorial that keeps the dead alive, one that can be passed around the living room after dinner or during family reunions, something that coaxes the stories and remembrances that are, in turn, passed on to new generations. The photographs maintain family ties and identity even in the face of inevitable death.