Saturday, 13 December 2008

Stick It In The Family Album Part I

There has been an almost total removal of the senior generation of our two families in the last two years, a truly grim succession of one of those "predictable crises" of adult life that everyone tries to ignore. But, in the process of coming to terms with all this, we have come up against a secondary problem that the self-help gurus mystifyingly fail to address: What to do about the photo albums?

Now, I hate to seem ungrateful, but there does seem to have been a decline in the standard of family albums in the last 40 years. It's partly to do with quality, and partly with quantity. Any halfway decent family photo album from before the 1960s is a thing of beauty and mystery, and -- most importantly and almost accidentally -- near-archival permanence. A black and white image, properly processed and kept in an album secured by photo corners, is good for a century or two.

But then along came 35mm colour prints, cheaply processed in bulk by machines onto resin-coated paper stock using dyes rather than silver salts, and the shit hit the archival fan. Go now -- run! -- and look at your oldest, most irreplaceable colour snaps: see how everything doth fade to a swimming-pool blue? Talk about your full fathom five ... Oh, and where are the negatives? And (should you be moved to get them out of that album and scan them before it's too late) are they by any chance sandwiched on album pages between stripes of tacky glue and a fold-over "protective" plastic sheet? Lots of luck with that, then...

And the sheer quantity. Where once a single silvery image stood in for an entire holiday, or even an entire life, now the album is stuffed with dozens and dozens of shiny snaps from unmemorable weekends, which the albumiser didn't or couldn't edit. And, crime of crimes for the family historian, failed to label. Not to mention the paper wallets of 6x4s and the plastic boxes of slides.

Obviously, the options are simple. You can chuck the lot in the bin; or carefully sort through looking for keepers, then chuck the rest in the bin; or just stuff the albums and wallets into a carrier bag and shut them in the closet. Hey, maybe the next generation will sort them out when it's their turn, or -- even better -- they'll have faded away to nothing by then. ("What the hell are these bits of plasticated paper Grandad kept in these icky sticky books? Is it some kind of money? Are we rich?")

Of course, it's not easy when a weird mix of magical thinking and sentimentality is at work, it's bound to cloud your judgment. Each charmingly bad, repetitive snap is the last remnant of something that mattered enough to someone you loved for them to raise a camera to their eye. I understand this: I'm a genuine primitive when it comes to photographs. I think at some level I actually believe that something of a person's soul is captured by a photo, like a sort of flypaper. It may be one reason I tend not to photograph people other than close family and friends. It's almost unbearable to fill a binbag with images of family, friends and familiar places. Rather like deliberately smashing a mirror on Friday the Thirteenth with your eyes crossed and your shirt on backwards. "I'm not superstitious, but..." Stick 'em in the closet for now.

Luckily, my Dad was very much a "two films a year" guy, so the Christmas tree comes hard alongside my Mum sitting outside their caravan, wearing her invariable "I'm being photographed" smile, separated only by the odd spectacular sunset or visits from the grandchildren. But even at the rate of 5o or so a year, when each one is filed away -- even the thumb close-ups and the ones so over-exposed by flash they look like souvenirs of a nuclear blast -- then it all adds up to quite a stack.

I've done my best to excavate the keepers. Selfishly, perhaps, the last 30 years-worth have meant little to me: people met on my parents' holidays, and the like. Straight in the bin. Duplicates of photos of my own kids sent through the post as grandparent fodder. Straight in the bin. Christmasses past with faces seared into white masks by flash. No thanks. Ten shots of the same carpet so faded I can't even tell what colour it was originally. Please!

But as we go further back, back to the time of the overlap of black and white and colour, the early sixties, genuine gold begins to emerge from the thinning archaeological layers. Little shots of pleasure and grief. Look, there's my cat! That's our car!

Me, ca. 1960, in the New Forest with a Silvine drawing book
and our beloved Austin A40 Somerset

And then finally, the real thing: irreplaceable evidence of ancestors known only by name, and the places they lived and died before, during and between the Wars. And a few mysteries to tease out, by much gazing, guesswork, and the triangulation of fashions and faces.

My great grandmother Mary Ann Mabbitt,
disfigured by fire but a woman
of legendary
and a keen home brewer

Now, here's a thing. When I scanned Granny Mabbitt's picture, I discovered that around her neck she has a locket, which almost certainly contains a photo of her elusive husband, ex-soldier and Man of Mystery Henry Mabbit, absent from every 19th century Census, and dead at 50 in 1896, leaving Mary Ann to bring up six children in a two bedroom cottage in Baldock, North Herts. Her occupation is given on the 1901 census as "charwoman." Think about that.

This hint of a face is about as tantalising as any genuine glimpse into the past can be. This preservation of an unexpected detail, rays of light reflected off a surface in the late 19th century and captured on that flypaper -- something no painter could or would ever have rendered faithfully -- is what makes photography the magic process that it is.


ballerinatoes said...

Dude - fantastic post. As I type, I have a stack of black and white photos of my grandma beside me. 70 years old and still in beautiful condition...I also have two photo albums full of pictures from my high school and college days with the ef'n magnetic page/glue crap...all completely ef'd up.

Anonymous said...

We must be related, Henry Mabbitt is my 1st Cousin, 4 times removed !
All my family descend from the Baldock Mabbitt's, I may have some more info if you wish to get in touch?
Love the photo.