Friday, March 13, 2020

Spying on a Memory

The great Henri Cartier-Bresson noted that "Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.  You cannot develop and print a memory."

One of the very few nuggets that I mined out of the heap of words in Roland Barthes' "Camera Lucida" is this (paraphrased).  Photographs more than any other medium can create a window into the past.  

So while you cannot develop and print a memory, if you have the negative then you can at least catch a glimpse of the past -- spy on a memory. I use this title "Spying on a Memory" for my long-term retrospective (gee, that sounds pretentious) project of combing through my negatives and reprinting.  I'm a bit over 600 prints now.  But I digress.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic reminded me of an incident of spying on memories that are not mine.

For a very long time my wife and I spent at least one long weekend a year at the Seabeck Conference Center on the Hood Canal.  For those not of the northwest, the Hood Canal is a body of saltwater between the Olympic Peninsula and the mainland.  We had become friends with the then newly installed manager of the center. As part of a very successful effort to build good will between the local population and the center he invited the "old timers" from the community to a spring barbecue on the beach adjacent to the center.  He asked them to bring along any photographs of the village that became the conference center in the early 1900s from their family albums.  He also asked me if I would photograph and copy some of these to hang in the center's buildings.  Of course I would!

The barbecue was a lot of fun and I photographed 60 or so vintage prints from the 200 or so that were there on the spot so that the owners could take the originals home again.  Over the next few months I made 8x10 or so copies of them.  Along in the fall he organized a second barbecue for the "old timers" and I brought along the new prints.  I laid them out on a long table for everybody to see.

When Seabeck was still a thriving village there was a dock at which the "Mosquito Fleet" steamboats called.  These were small coastwise boats that swarmed (like mosquitoes, thus the name) around Puget Sound carrying passengers, cargo, and mail among the many isolated villages.  One of the photographs was of the dock with a boat there, men in flat caps were unloading cargo and a couple of women in fancy dress with umbrellas and a man in a derby were walking towards the camera.  An elderly man with a white shoe brush mustache looked at my print and said "That's the (I can't remember the name of the boat.)  I was a deck hand on her -- that picture was from before 1923 because in 1923 she hit the dock in (somewhere I don't remember) and the pilot house didn't look like this any more."  I got his address and later sent him a copy.

But now the connection to the current pandemic.  Another one of the photographs was taken in a bedroom in one of the village houses that became part of the conference center.  Two small girls in white dresses, perhaps 6 and 8, one with a big white bow in her hair, were seated on a bed.  A tiny elderly lady in a print dress looked at it and tears came to her eyes.  "That's me and my sister.  Our father was the first manager of the conference center.  I remember when this photo was taken.  I knew it existed but never saw a copy of it.  It was 1917 -- I know that because my sister died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic."  I made a copy of that print for her, too.

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