Monday, November 23, 2015

Labeling Photographs: Memory and Mourning

Have you ever wondered why some of your inherited family photographs are impeccably labelled, and others are unfortunate blank canvases?

My maternal grandfather recently passed away, and I inherited a handful of photographs. Not the real old kind, just a few pictures from my parents' wedding through approximately my 8th grade graduation. Almost all were unlabeled, and the ones my grandmother had labeled were vague or incomplete. "Gail's wedding" or "July 16, 1997."

Luckily, I was able to identify the people and places in almost all of them, and could give at least an educated guess as to approximate dates. So when I got home from my mom's house the other night, I set right to labeling the pictures.

I found myself being more specific than usual, with places in particular. I realized that the impending sale of my grandparents' home, the home where my mother grew up and where my cousins and I spent so much of our childhood, was driving me. Scribbling the street address, over and over, on the backs of 4x6 prints, somehow made me feel like I was doing my part to keep the memory of Grandma and Grandpa's house alive. (I was there only days earlier. The race to "keep memories alive" can be premature or even irrational.)

But this influenced my labeling throughout the collection. I added street addresses to pictures taken in my current house, in my parents' house, anywhere I recognized. I was aiming for consistency, yes, but I was also imagining a future where we've moved out of the home we love and have only pictures to remember it by. A future where I've passed away and my children struggle to remember the address of the apartment in NYC where we spent the first years of our marriage. Or where my kids - who will only ever know the apartment my in-laws downsized to - can't picture them living in the big house in the suburbs where my husband spent his happy childhood. Will addresses on the back of photographs change any of that? Not by much. They can't bring back a grandfather, unsell a house, or give my son any real memories of the apartment where he spent the first 10 weeks of his life. But they can make me feel like I tried.

I wonder what my kids, my descendants, the strangers who find my albums in a thrift store will think when they see how well-labelled some - but not all - of my pictures are. I can't imagine that they will even begin to follow my thought processes.

Have you ever though about what motivated the people creating the records you use?

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