Friday, January 13, 2012

The truth

This photographic postcard, most likely created between 1907-1914, depicts a family group against the backdrop of a snowy field. The identities of the subjects and the photographer are unknown, and there's no inscription or address on the reverse. The only external information is the mark of photographic paper (Velox) and the existence of another image, not in my possession but evidently taken on the same day, that shows only the man, the boy, and the woman on the far right, and thus perhaps can be taken as an indication of which of these figures are the boy's parents.

So in this picture we see four women, one man, a boy -- and a cat. But of course one more person is present, the photographer, who may have been a professional but more likely was another member of the family, an amateur shutterbug. His or her possible role in the family, even though it can't be determined, shouldn't be overlooked.

I'm not an expert on period clothing nor am I particularly good at reading family relationships from facial features, and in the end there's only so much information to be gleaned from a photograph like this. Still, there are a number of curious things here that leap out, things that, without telling us anything more for certain about these people and what they were like, at least open up some suggestive possibilities.

Let's start with the background. It's a barren, snow-covered field, at least part of which is hilly, and there's a line of trees, perhaps other hills, in the far distance. There is a pole on the left that at first sight looks like a utility pole, but it's too short and the apparent crosspiece at the top seems to be an illusion caused by a horizontal line of brush behind it. There's at least one other vertical structure some distance back, but I suspect it's just a small tree. If the field is barren in winter it may be pastureland; there's no sign of stubble left over from a summer harvest.

The woman on the right is clutching a small potted evergreen with one hand, almost as if it had been set there temporarily and might fall over if she didn't support it. At least one and more likely two similar trees are partially hidden by the human figures. It seems a curious way to pose, but maybe the bucolic effect of the greenery was deliberately sought. It's also possible that the evergreen on the right is a Christmas tree. Perhaps the image was taken to be used as a Christmas greeting, though since it's a photographic print and not a lithographic reproduction there's no certainty that this is not the only copy ever made. The dark diagonal shadow at the bottom of the picture may be a developing flaw -- or it may just be a shadow.

The formidable-looking old woman at center, the only seated figure, may be a widow; in any case she seems to be the unquestioned center of authority in the family. She wears an elaborate lace collar, perhaps of her own making. The woman in the dark dress immediately behind her -- her daughter or granddaughter? -- peers at the photographer with a look that could be called anxious or just curious; in either case she seems to be accustomed to a subordinate role. The woman on the far left might be a family member (she bears some resemblance to the seated woman), but she could also be a domestic. She wears an apron, one of her eyes behind her spectacles doesn't look quite right, and the awkwardly downturned corners of her mouth might be an indication of Bell's palsy.

The man, who is quite far back in the group, appears to be a bit of a dandy, at least for out in the country. He's wearing a lively cap and a bow-tie and clearly hasn't been laboring with his hands today. He may work in an office in town or perhaps has simply dressed up for the occasion. His son, obscured except for his face, appears to be about five years old. Off to the right, with the barest hint of a smile and a distinctly independent bearing, is the boy's mother.

Finally, there is the cat. From his body language he is evidently feeling the cold. No one else appears to have noticed his presence (though the photographer no doubt sees him) and he seems to have crept into the margins of the group with the deliberate intention of being included in the shot.

I'm not sure that there's anything terribly profound to be learned from this particular photograph. If you looked at thousands, or tens of thousands of similar images from the same period (many millions exist) then you could, if you wanted, make interesting deductions about how people lived and thought about themselves, and perhaps reach conclusions that would tell you things you didn't already know about the broader social and economic currents of the period, but that's not my intent, at least here. My interest instead is epistemological, perhaps even metaphysical. This photo is an indication that the people in this image once existed, it's potentially evidence for who they were and how they existed, but in the end it's also a reminder that, whatever conclusions we may reach about them, the truth will always be something quite different, something forever out of reach, something that in one fleeting instant on a snowy hillside left an indelible, inscrutable trace.

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