Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Every picture tells a story

What do you think? The French Neil Diamond?
Or in his short hair version the young actor in Truffaut's films? I found these photos in the Marais.

And this woman - a femme fatale? A model for Man Ray?

Or this woman who seemed to have second thoughts before lighting that cigarette

Along with the lady who experimented with cloche hats - to wear or not - corsage or no corsage?

Photos inspire me. Maybe it's from when my mother would pull out family photo albums on a Sunday afternoon. The kind of photo album with a sagging cover, worn thick black paper and black and white photos held in place with glued corner pieces. Does anyone remember these?

Ok, I was an annoying kid and usually bored on Sundays (no videos or Twitter in the old days and we lived in the country.) In our albums some of the corners had come unglued, the photos tilted a bit. My mother would say 'there's your grandfather's father, the one who bought the first car on the block.' She'd point to what looked like a Model T but in reality must have been a 1930's Chrysler, the smiling women in long dresses, crimped hair, a man with a cap at the wheel.

'But where were they going?' I'd ask. 'A drive to the Indiana dunes probably' she'd say, 'we'd drive there on Sundays. That's if your great-great grandmother Pon-Pon was up to it.' My great-great grandmother Pon-Pon, despite the name was English, had gone blind and lived with my grandparents. In the photos Pon-Pon looked crosseyed, very tall and angular with black old lady shoes. I'd heard about Pon-Pon and most of them but they all had died before I was born. 'Tell me about her.' Then my mother would talk about growing up with her grandmother, who before she was blind, had seen the glow of the great Chicago fire from their farm in Wisconsin.

'But what were they like?' I'd ask. My mother would sigh then tell me 'that cousin liked cards, or she had a good union job and went out with the boss, your great uncle loved Chinese Checkers, that Aunt never let us in the kitchen and made us wash our hands every five minutes .' She'd tell me these stories over and over when I asked always adding new details, usually on those quiet Sunday afternoons.

My mother would flesh out the life of these people in the photos. These people who were my family and wore old fashioned dresses, flirted with sailors, worked in the Union hall, removed John Dillinger's fingerprints. Yes, we had a questionable doctor in the family tree, who years later I found out, performed back street abortions, lost his medical license and got in the with Dillinger gang. Got in so deep, family lore goes, that he's in cement at the bottom of Lake Michigan with Jimmy Hoffa.

Yet my mother made these black and white photos come alive, endowed the people with quirks, described the color of their nail polish, their favorite foods, the starched white collars they wore. I felt I knew them. And maybe I did through her memories.

Until one of my uncles who'd lived in Paris after the war and drank a lot of red wine came to live with us. I heard his stories in person over the kitchen table. But the only photos in the album of him were in New York, in Hell's Kitchen, a young man, wire thin and with much more hair. Not the man I met years later. I remember thinking that pictures tell a story. A story of that one moment in time, when the world was that way. And never again.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. Cara - I envy your family stories. My father's aunt was born in 1890 and died when she was 93. She never kept any pictures. She lived through two world wars, Korea and Vietnam and saw the invention or the introduction into everyday life of all the things we take for granted: the car, the telephone, the refrigerator, the airplane as common transportation, the radio, the television, movies, electric lights instead of gas, gas stoves, vacuum cleaners, washers, dryers, and so much more.

    She saw the introduction of life saving vaccines and medical treatments but she would never talk about any of it or how it affected her family. Whenever I tried to get questions answered, her reply was always that the past was past and should be left there. My mother's father was of her generation but he lived in Ireland until he was in his twenties so his life was very different.

    All the stories she could have told but wouldn't. All the family history that was lost. All those stories of moments in time at a time I can barely imagine lost forever. I often wonder why.

  2. Beth,

    That's so true. To think of what the older generation has lived through and seen and yet if
    the stories aren't passed on they're gone.

    Photos show us that slice of time. At fleamarkets in Paris I gravitate towards the bin of old photos and start rooting. I always find a photo that makes me start wondering...that what if? The 60's photo of a French soldier in Indochina at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu inspired Murder in Clichy. The way he held his gun, the smile on his face and the slant of the palm tree shivered me...


  3. How true. My grandfather, whom I knew quite well, went on the first train in Wales and lived until the Concord flew. Whew. He used to ask me about computers and generally understood what they were and what they did. Unfortunately, like so many of his generation, he seldom told of his life - of being a cowboy in Calgary, of riding his horse from Cape Town to Johannesburg (often under Boer fire), and of working on the gold mines.