Remembrance of Things Past
Do you have a photograph that resurrects memories of a time and place?
I have one, well, really two pictures that have that effect on me. One of them I took, and the other is a postcard taken before I was born; yet they are related by my memory of different aspects of my relationship with my father.
The one I took is of my dad, Dell, and his wife, Gladys. It was taken at their home at Eagle Lake in California. As you can see, they were standing on the balcony of their house (built by him) that looked out on the lake. Behind them are the hills on the opposite side of the lake, hazy dark lines in the distance. The water to their right is shimmering, a boat dock partially seen on the lower left. It was/is a warm summer day; I always visited them in the summer. My dad has his left arm around Gladys, the other casually extended and resting on the railing. They are both smiling different smiles.
I don’t remember the day, or even year that I took the picture. It was shot with my Yashica Mat. I know this because it’s square. I know too that I wasn’t a very good photographer because my parents are a bit dark and the background is a bit washed-out. This small casual souvenir of a picture brings me a heavy sense of loss and regret. My father died young, at 67, and there were too many things that I left unsaid, too absorbed growing into my adult self, and too eager to cut myself free from his apron strings (he was a great cook). This photograph reminds me of that time, that distance I created.
The other photograph is a postcard of the Golden Pagoda in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, that I found at a swap meet. When I saw it the image made me smile. My dad loved all things Chinese, I’m not sure why. When he lived in L.A. and even after he moved, during those visits we would go to that pagoda-shaped restaurant. He knew the manager, a friend, and he enjoyed the food. This postcard reminds me of the wonderful things that I knew and loved about my dad—his generosity, his gregarious nature, the way he embraced life. Both images, ephemeral apparitions of remembrance, are as fragile and vaporous as the paper image they inhabit.
It is strange to me that the photograph that I’m connected with, the one I took, the one that showed me how close (proximity) I was to my dad is the one that is a rueful reminder. I’m ashamed to say that I was there, but really wasn’t there. The other photo, taken by another person, was of a place filled for me with sounds, smells, tastes and conversations related to dad. That place is still there. I can go to it and walk inside, but it has become an empty shell without his presence. They are two pictures of the way things were, existing now only in feelings—of regret and happiness.
Tell me what you think
“A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, a photograph—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie.” Susan Sontag, On Photography