David Bouchier: Worth A Thousand Words?

Jun 4, 2018

A distant relative sent me a package of old family photographs, hoping that I could identify some of them. It was a vain hope. A few of the images came just within the range of personal memory: my parents, my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and some embarrassing childhood pictures of myself.  One of the nice things about human memory is that it is self-editing. It allows us to forget so much. But old photographs can destroy a lifetime of benign amnesia in a single instant. These ancient images brought back so many memories, including our rain-drenched family vacations by the sea,  and long dead aunts outside their long demolished cottages, a memento mori that I could have done without.

The older prints were less identifiable. Thin sepia images with no identification other than frustrating pencil notes on the back like “Jane” or “Grandmother with a motor cycle.” Judging by the clothes and the cars, these were from the period just before the First World War. If we had a comprehensive family tree it might be easier, but no genealogist has ever been able to make sense of my ancestors.

If the people shown in these photographs really were part of my family, they were full of surprises. They showed a certain unexpected affluence – the elegant clothes and the cars for example. There were some formal studio portraits, including a handsome man dressed and posed like a matinée idol, and one of a beautiful young couple in an ultra-romantic pre-Raphaelite style, as well as less formal family groups, including one showing a great crowd of children and adults crammed into a car of 1915 vintage like a bunch of circus clowns. Curiously, some pictures have English backgrounds, and some seem to have been taken in North America. One portrait bears the imprint of a photographer in Canada. I believe the family had a Canadian connection, but what was it? The mysteries multiply,

It is always slightly disturbing to contemplate people from long ago, especially if they have a personal connection. I’ve never understood why people in past centuries hung large pictures of their ancestors all over the house. It may have been family pride, I suppose, or the need to remind themselves and others of their station in life. But photographs are a private indulgence, not a public statement.

What am I to make of these anonymous pictures? How wrong it is to claim that a picture is worth a thousand words. We need the words, the label, just as we do on a painting. What would be make of the famous shot of a sailor kissing a girl in Times Square without the label “VJ Day 1945”? How would we guess that Jackson Pollock’s painting “Reflection of the Big Dipper” was about a big dipper, without the title? Obviously we would not.

So, without the labels, this collection of ancient photographs, possibly depicting my ancestors, will remain anonymous to me. Perhaps they would prefer it that way, and perhaps I do too. Elegant, mysterious, and dignified they represent exactly I kind of past I would love to have, if I had one. Sometimes, labels can be death to romance.

Copyright: David Bouchier