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Talking pictures, p.1

Talking Pictures, page 1

 

Talking Pictures
 


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Talking Pictures


  T A L K I N G P I C T U R E S

  IMAGES AND MESSAGES RESCUED FROM THE PAST

  RANSOM RIGGS

  Dedication

  FOR DOROTHY AND JANET

  CONTENTS

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  Introduction

  1. Clowning Around

  2. Love and Marriage

  3. Times of Trouble

  4. Life During Wartime

  5. Janet Lee

  6. Hide This Please

  7. Unsolved Mysteries

  Afterword

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  INTRODUCTION

  I HAVE AN UNUSUAL HOBBY: I COLLECT PICTURES OF PEOPLE I DON’T KNOW.

  It started when I was a kid growing up in South Florida—the land of junk stores, garage sales, and flea markets—as a kind of coping mechanism. Despite my best efforts to avoid them, I was often dragged along on Sunday afternoon antiquing expeditions, down dim and dusty aisles crowded with needlepoint portraits and moth-eaten sport coats—a hell-scape for any boy of thirteen—where occasionally, while my grandmother hunted for bargains, I would find caches of old snapshots. They were photos of strangers, of weddings and funerals, family vacations, backyard forts, and first days of school, all torn from once-treasured albums and dumped into plastic bins for strangers to paw through: communal graves of a sort, the anonymous dead shuffled into ersatz families of the unwanted. I spent hours sifting through the bins, the faces blackening my fingertips.

  What fascinated me about them—even more than the images themselves, at first—was that they were available for sale at all. I wondered how people could give away pictures of their families, even those of distant relatives they might not know or remember. Why would they give these photographs up—why, for that matter, would complete strangers want them?

  The first question was almost too grim to ponder. As for why people would want them, I began to understand it the first time a snapshot really caught my eye. It was a portrait of a pretty girl who bore an uncanny resemblance to someone I’d suffered a hopeless crush on at summer camp. I found her smiling up at me from a shoebox, encased in a little cardboard frame, and knew in an instant that she was destined to become my fantasy girlfriend. I ponied up a quarter, took her home, and propped her on my nightstand, where for the better part of a year she occupied a hallowed spot between cardboard likenesses of Nolan Ryan and Ken Griffey, Jr. It was fun to wonder who she was and what her life might’ve been like.

  When I finally outgrew baseball cards and fantasy girlfriends, I decided to retire them from my nightstand into a proper album. But the girl’s picture wouldn’t fit because of its cardboard frame. Ever so carefully, as if performing important surgery, I pried it out. Turning it over in my hands, I saw the back for the first time.

  For a long while I just sat on the edge of my bed, staring at it. I’d spent months imagining a life for this person, and in an instant it was all erased. She was no longer anonymous. Now she had a name—Dorothy—and a city, and a fate. I’d been fantasizing about a dead girl.

  Of course, many of the snapshots I’d handled were of dead people; they were old pictures, after all. But the discovery that Dorothy, who looked so young and alive in her photo, had likely died just months after it was taken, hit me pretty hard. I found myself grieving, in a small, quiet way, for a person I had never known, who had been dead now much longer than she’d been alive, and whose own family had probably not thought of her in decades. Smiling and doomed, Dorothy haunted me for some time.

  Fifteen years passed before I bought another snapshot. Once I crossed that threshold, though, my old hobby blossomed into an obsession. I became a collector, albeit an odd one; my primary interest was in snapshots that had writing on them. This had advantages and disadvantages. Among other things, by looking at only the backs of the photos, I could sort through a bin of a thousand snapshots in just a few minutes. But interesting captions were pretty rare, so more often than not I’d walk away empty-handed. I never worried about other collectors buying the photos I wanted before I could get to them, though, because my favorites were almost always diamonds in the rough. Dorothy taught me that a great snapshot doesn’t have to meet the aesthetic standards by which we judge other types of photography. A photo might seem absolutely ordinary, but for a few words scribbled on the opposite side. Like this one, they’re hidden gems:

  Judging only by the front side, it’s as banal as snapshots get: a wall, a sign, and some bushes. It’s flat; it’s boring; it’s not even in focus!

  Flip it over, though, and the picture is transformed:

  Now it’s much more than just a wall: it’s a scene imbued with pathos and drama, the strength of which has little to do with composition or tone or even, really, the subject of the photo itself. What’s pictured on the front is a reminder, a sort of keepsake, inscribed so that Dorothy might never forget where she was on the day she found a baby girl by the side of the road. (That her name is Dorothy is an uncanny coincidence not lost on me.)

  Maybe the girl had been abandoned by her mother. Maybe she’d been there all night, a cold one even for Southern California in January, and if Dorothy hadn’t found her when she did, the baby wouldn’t have survived. Maybe this affected Dorothy so profoundly that she returned to the spot again and again, compelled by something she couldn’t quite name, and on one of those trips brought along a camera. Maybe the picture is blurred because she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking as she took it. We’ll never know, but thanks to the inscription on the back we can at least wonder. It lent the mutest of snapshots a voice.

  The best inscriptions make a snapshot feel current, no matter when it was taken. They have an immediacy that transcends era, and counteracts the distancing effect old snapshots can have. As a kid, I found it hard to believe that photos of my grandmother as a young girl, posing stiffly in a sepia-toned world, could actually have been taken during her lifetime. They seemed like artifacts from some ancient civilization. That’s because old photos have a way of looking older than they really are, focusing our attention on all that’s outmoded and obsolete: technology, styles of dress, and other such cultural ephemera.

  Great inscriptions have the opposite effect. They allow us to recognize something of ourselves in the blurred and yellowing faces of our forebears. By echoing something timeless, they remind us of all that hasn’t changed: the ache of long-distance love; the anxiety felt by parents sending their children off to war; that everyone, at one time or another, has felt self-conscious about the way they look in pictures. If any of these snapshots can speak, I think what they say is: things aren’t so different.

  Sometimes a word is worth a thousand pictures.

  1. CLOWNING AROUND

  Courtesy of David Bass

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  IF THE SIGN SAID

  SEGRAM SEVEN INSTEAD

  OF ”7 UP“ I’D BE INSIDE.

  Courtesy of Robert E. Jackson

  CAUGHT IN THE ACT

  WITH A CIGGERETTE IN

  MY FACE.

  LOOK NATURAL.

  NO CHEATING ALLOWED

  HIGHWAY ROBBERY

  THIS IS THE WAY I MAKE MY

  LIVING. ALBERT ON THE

  RIGHT SIDE AND I AM THE

  MAN WITH THE GUN.

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  SUICIDE + MURDER

  HERB AND ED SMART

  Courtesy of Robert E. Jackson

  Courtesy of Robert E. Jackson

  ANUAL BATH.

  MYSELF WITH MY FRIENDS

  WIFE. TO WHOM I RECENTLY

  ACTED AS B
EST MAN.

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  2. LOVE AND MARRIAGE

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of John Van Noate

  Courtesy of Erin Waters

  TO MY WEAKNESS

  FROM BOB

  LOVE ALWAYS

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of Roselyn Leibowitz

  I AM SO AWFUL LONESOME, GEE I WISH THAT YOU WERE HERE.

  THIS IS HOW I WILL LOOK SUNDAY IF YOU ARN’T WITH

  ME—SO PLEASE ARRANGE IT, DARLING

  BESS

  Courtesy of David Bass

  Courtesy of Erin Waters

  I’M THROUGH WITH ALL GUYS. ALL THEY DO IS HAND

  YOU LIES. THEY BREAK YOUR HEART AND MAKE YOU

  CRY. YOU WANT TO DROP SOMEWHERE AND DIE. THE

  WAY THEY TREAT YOU IS A SIN. WOW!!!!!!!

  DIG THAT GUY THAT JUST WALKED IN!!!

  OSCAR DIDN’T WANT TO GIVE HER AWAY SAID HE WOULDN’T

  TILL 2 DAYS BEFORE THEN SAID HE WAS GOING TO WEAR

  OVERHALLS + STRAW HAT AND CARRY A PITCHFORK.

  Courtesy of Roselyn Leibowitz

  Courtesy of Angela Paez

  3. TIMES OF TROUBLE

  ONE OF MY JOBS 70 MILES FROM HOME. I’D GO ANYWHERE

  THAT I COULD TO MAKE A LIVING. DO YOU KNOW

  OF ANYTHING BACK THERE?

  MOVED TO DETROIT WHERE DORIS JEAN + ELENORE RUTH WERE BORN.

  BOTH DIED—DORIS JEAN AT 11 MO. SPINAL MENINGITIS

  ELENORE RUTH AT 4 MO. MALNUTRITION

  NO $ FOR FOOD

  STEALING EVERYTHING

  I COULD GET MY

  HANDS ON. HA HA

  1932

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  MILLS BANK, SMITHLAND IOWA

  SAFE BLOWN BY BURGLARS 9-28-11

  W.J. WOLFE

  WAGNER, SO. DAK.

  Courtesy of Albert Tanquero

  Courtesy of Albert Tanquero

  ME—THE SHERIFF.

  JUST CAME IN FROM A MAN HUNT,

  THE MAN STILL MISSING.

  LEX

  SUPER 38 AUTO NAMED SUSIE Q

  (JR. MYERS ACCIDENTALLY SHOT HIMSELF WHILE REMOVING

  RIFLE FROM CAR AFTER RETURN FROM HUNTING TRIP.)

  YOU CAN SEE CECILIA

  CAN’T SMILE TO GOOD

  WITH STITCHES IN HER LIP

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of David Bass

  THIS IS A PERFECT PICTURE OF OUR DAUGHTER MARION -

  27 - WHICH UNCLE GEO. TOOK IN COLO. SPRINGS -

  ABOUT A MONTH BEFORE SHE PASSED AWAY

  Courtesy of Angela Paez

  Courtesy of John Van Noate

  Courtesy of John Van Noate

  OH PLEASE EVERYBODY BE GOOD TO

  POOR LITTLE SUSAN AND MY

  DEAR BABY IF IT LIVES. OH MY

  GOD HAVE MERCY ON MY CHILDREN

  AND TAKE CARE OF THEM.

  MAMMA DON’T EVER FORGET TO TELL

  SUSAN TIME AND TIME AGAIN HOW I

  LOVED HER AND LONGED TO LIVE TO RAISE HER.

  Courtesy of David Bass

  4. LIFE DURING WARTIME

  LEAVING HOME FOR WAR

  I HAVE PICTURES OF

  FIRST DAY TO SCHOOL

  FIRST DAY TO HIGH SCHOOL

  FIRST DAY TO COLLEGE

  AND

  FIRST DAY OFF TO WAR.

  THIS ONE I COULD

  EASILY + GLADLY HAVE

  DONE WITHOUT

  Courtesy of David Bass

  Courtesy of David Bass

  MET - JULY - 18

  STEADY - JULY - 25

  ENGAGED - AUG - 5

  MARRY - AUG - 29

  ENLIST M. - OCT - 9

  SWORN - OCT - 16

  LEFT - OCT - 19

  HOME - NOV - 16

  LEFT - NOV - 30

  CALLED - DEC - 28

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  PROTECTING THE MADMAN OF BERLIN

  FROM THE MURDEROUS WRATH OF

  MEYER THE MAGNIFICIENT

  MISS HICKS IN HER AIR RAID OUTFIT

  Courtesy of Roselyn Leibowitz

  THIS WAS TAKEN HILL 10 SOUTH VIET NAM.

  THINGS AREN’T TOO BAD BUT GETTING WORST

  EVERY DAY, REALLY AT NIGHT

  A STUDENT

  BILL

  THIS IS A PICTURE OF A BATTLE FIELD WHICH EXTENDS FOR

  MILES NORTH OF VERDUN. THOUSANDS AND THOUSANDS OF

  DEAD WILL NEVER BE ACCOUNTED FOR. FOR MILES I COULD

  NOT SEE A FOOT OF GROUND THAT WAS NOT TORN UP BY

  PROJECTILES FROM BIG GUNS. CONCRETE FORTS 30 FT

  THICK WERE BATTERED UNTIL THE CONCRETE REINFORCED

  WITH IRON LOOKED LIKE ONLY A MOUND OF EARTH. HARRY

  Courtesy of Stacy Waldman

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  FROM HAROLD TO BILLIE

  HE SAYS FOR YOU TO SHOW

  THIS TO THE LEATHERNECKS AND

  TELL THEM FROM THE LOOKS

  OF THESE MEDALS THEY

  DID NOT ALTOGETHER

  WIN THE WAR.

  Courtesy of John Van Noate

  Courtesy of Stacy Waldman

  Courtesy of John Van Noate

  JOHN IN FRONT

  OF HOUSE

  1918-VOLUNTEERED FOR WORLD WAR I

  133 FIELD ARTIRRALY-WAS A CRACK

  SHOT-SERVED IN FRANCE.

  RETURNED HOME-1919-A MENTAL WRECK

  Courtesy of Lynne Rostochil

  Courtesy of Erin Waters

  5. JANET LEE

  “Let’s Forget About It”

  6. HIDE THIS PLEASE

  Courtesy of Erin Waters

  I’M NOT AS FAT AS I LOOK HERE, IT’S

  THE TERRY CLOTH PAJAMAS OVER MY

  BATHING SKIRT PLUS WIND.

  Courtesy of Angela Paez

  Courtesy of David Bass

  Courtesy of Roselyn Leibowitz

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  I CAME OUT TERRIBLE SO I PUT INK ON MY FACE

  AND SCRATCHED IT OFF.

  Courtesy of Roselyn Leibowitz

  JUST ME PEARL NETTER.

  CHILLY’S SIMPLEST

  JUST A WASTE OF TIME

  Courtesy of David Bass

  7. UNSOLVED MYSTERIES

  Courtesy of Erin Waters

  THERE’LL BE NO KIDNAPERS GET THIS CHILD.

  50 YRS FROM NOW

  IMAGE OF JESUS ON COW

  Courtesy of Roselyn Leibowitz

  Courtesy of David Bass

  Courtesy of David Bass

  THIS MAN TOOK CARE OF THE BRUSHING OF TEETH BEFORE

  THE HEADS COULD BE ROASTED. HE IS CONVICTED OF NOT USING

  COLGATES TOOTH PASTE. SO HE GOT DRAFTED.

  Courtesy of Sarah Bryan

  Courtesy of David Bass

  Courtesy of Roselyn Leibowitz

  Courtesy of Robert E. Jackson

  AFTERWORD

  Courtesy of Peter J. Cohen

  People don’t write on the backs of photos much anymore. That’s because we don’t write on anything as much as we used to—at least, not in a traditional, pen-to-paper sense. Nor do we even take photos—by which I mean real photos, printed on paper coated with photo emulsion. Cameras have proliferated as never before, but the images they produce are ephemeral strings of ones and zeroes, rarely printed, stored on chips and drives that are easily damaged or erased, susceptible to heat, magnets, wear, and obsolescence. A hard drive might last five years, a compact disc ten or fifteen. A well-printed snapshot will still be visible after a century—negatives even longer.

  We are no longer leaving behind a tangible, enduring photographic record of ourselves. Future generations will be far less likely to find our creased snapshots in dr
esser drawers and attic trunks, as we did those of our ancestors. Which is to say: old photos may seem numberless now, but they are being lost and tossed at an alarming rate, and we’re not making new ones. They’re an ever-diminishing and increasingly precious repository of knowledge about our past and ourselves, a visual history of who we were and the way we lived. The passage of time makes old photographs more than just someone else’s memories. When names and faces are forgotten, they pass into collective memory. In a sense, they belong to all of us.

 
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