Sunday, July 06, 2014

The living

These two faded and stained studio portraits of African-American couples were taken sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century and printed on postcard stock. The one above, which is probably the earlier of the two, is the work of the Flett Studio in Atlantic City, which operated for at least fifteen years or so and must have produced countless similar images. "Mr. & Mrs...," followed by a family name, has been written on the back, but I can't make out the surname. The third figure, standing in the center, may have been the best man at the couple's wedding, or just a relative or friend.

There's even less we can say about the couple below, except that they're dressed to the nines. The studio is unidentified, but the Azo postcard stock used was manufactured from 1904-1918. Like the first postcard, this one was never mailed.

When an artifact is removed from its context without adequate documentation some of its potential for bearing information is lost; we no longer know as much about how it relates to the world that created it. The orphaned photographs above would be much more potent if we knew anything at all about the sitters' identities, life stories, occupations, and families, but people die childless or separated from their families, children have their own lives to lead and can't be bothered, any number of things can sever the thread. Things drift off and go their own ways.

The Dead in Frock Coats

In the corner of the living room was an an album of unbearable photos,
many meters high and infinite minutes old,
over which everyone leaned
making fun of the dead in frock coats.

Then a worm began to chew the indifferent coats,
the pages, the inscriptions, and even the dust on the pictures.
The only thing it did not chew was the everlasting sob of life that broke
and broke from those pages.

— Carlos Drummond de Andrade; translation by Mark Strand

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