…No digital display on this camera…
I’ve always had a thing about photography.
There’s something magical about a captured moment – an instant in a life, a tangible stopping of time. The right photograph can communicate the essence of a person in a way nothing else quite can.
Getting a photo taken today isn’t a big thing – with digital photography, taking 50 or even 200 photos in the course of an event isn’t considered excess. Everyone can be a photographer, and anyone a subject. On my Facebook page alone, I have over 1200 tagged photos. 1200 moments in my life frozen and uploaded and on display, for anyone who’s curious (or creepy) enough to go through them all. In addition to that, there are thousands of other photos I’ve taken that are saved on memory cards or computer hard drives, and back at home in Canada, I have boxes and albums full of printed photos. The capturing and cataloging of a life.
But all this is a relatively new thing. A hundred and fifty years ago, photography was still new. The concept of ‘fixed smiles’ put on for photos didn’t yet exist. Getting one’s photograph taken was a luxury – something that would perhaps happen once in a lifetime, or wouldn’t ever occur at all. The way photography has changed the world is a fascinating topic, and one that I’d very much like to delve into in a future post. But today, I want to write about photographs. Three photographs, to be specific, that I bought in an antique store in rural Georgia.
I had traveled to Atlanta to go to Stitches South, a hugely popular knitting event. I attended as a member of the press, and after a weekend of interviews and networking and much, much wool, I took an extra day to drive through the countryside around Atlanta, poking through shops for antique treasures.
I bought a hat. I bought a vintage toiletries case to carry the CDs I sell after my shows. I bought a few interesting-looking pieces of sheet music. And then, in one store, I found a dusty pile of old photographs.
So many photos. Fragments of hundreds of different lives, abandoned for strangers to sift through. These were not casual snapshots, either. There were pictures of soldiers in uniform, grinning rakishly. Of faded grandparents standing beside their faded homes. Of wide-eyed babies, in lace gowns and frilled bonnets. Hundreds of moments, abandoned. Forgotten.
It felt wrong. I wanted to rescue them all. And yet… what did I need with a bunch of old photos? I barely have a home myself – much less the room needed to properly display each one. I started to put them back into the large crate where I’d found them, pausing to look at each photo, to see each person who had lived and died and left behind…What if this was all that was left – the measure of a life – just this thin white piece of paper. Imprinted with an image. The souvenir of a life lived. In a dusty crate in a pile of other photos, with a price scrawled on the back of each one.
I put the pictures back, one by one, except… there were three that I couldn’t put down. Three photographs that I just couldn’t leave behind.
I think of her as “Mary Ingalls”, like from the Little House on the Prairie books. I would date this photo at about 1880, when the real Mary Ingalls would have been 15. Of course, as any reader of children’s literature knows, Mary became blind in her early teens, but in many other ways, the two girls are similar. Both had long blond hair, both dressed impeccably, wearing corsets and hats to keep their figure trim and skin pale.
This Mary is utterly gorgeous. Her features are delicate and her hands are small. She has pierced ears and wears a cameo around her neck and a jeweled fastener in her hair, all signs that she lived not on the prairies of the American West, but somewhere considerably more settled. The masses of hand-crocheted lace tied to the front of her dress shows that she was fashionable and likely of the class that did not need to spend her day toiling through household chores.
She seems like good girl. she probably went to church, walked in the park on Sunday afternoons. Taught Sunday School. Behaved herself generally, which I would have found very difficult, had I lived back then. But there’s something about her expression – perhaps she was a painter, or wrote songs for her little pupils, or wrote poetry about the sunsets in Rome, while carefully hemming linen sheets for her hope chest.This Mary looks like the sort of delicate pretty girl that men would flock to, and I hope she had a happy, full life, with children and music and love throughout it all.
There’s something almost painfully bittersweet about this photograph. A little girl – probably around 11 or 12 – looking right into the camera. Her hair isn’t twisted into braids or twined in a bun. She isn’t wearing corsets or bonnet. In fact, aside from the frilled lace collar, there is nothing in this photo that traps this little girl in her time. This photo was taken around 1900, but looking at the child, she could have lived fifty year earlier, or later, or could be living right now. It’s rare to see a photograph where the subject is so raw. All eyes and hair and soft curve of cheekbone.
At the time that this photo was taken, Physiognomy – the assessment of a person’s character from their outer appearance – was all the rage. And even though it is currently considered rather a humbug pseudoscience, when this little girl was a little girl, it was considered valid science. Looking at her firm yet distinctly feminine features, her eyebrows – one straight and one quirked slightly – signals that she is intelligent and inquisitive. Kind, funny, generous. A delightful girl.
I think of her as Nettie, from the character in Rose Wilder Lane’s book, Free Land:
“She was too thin, she was young, with a wildness in her, playful and awkward, like a colt’s. Her mouth was fine and clear, with a quirk at the corners. A man could not be blamed for knowing that some other man, some day, would kiss that mouth.”
I wonder what sort of life she had. I wonder what she should have said, if she could have seen the world today, known that some other girl in New York City was thinking of her and was fascinated by her. This is the kind of daughter I would like to have – determined, strong-willed and smart. My Nettie.
Elvira Cox Metcalf. This photograph came with a name, written on a slip of paper tucked between the photograph and the cardboard frame. Elvira. Picture taken in 1914. Elvira reminds me of… me. Dark eyes. Wavy hair. A bit rumpled, even on this special occasion. The photograph isn’t in the best condition – there are spots on her clothes and face, but Elvira is still pretty. Not the delicate, ethereal beauty of Mary, or the elfin charm of Nettie. No, Elvira looks like a capable girl. And a bit sad.
She isn’t pale, like many Southern woman. Was she in Georgia working as a governness or a maid? Or perhaps a schoolteacher, come down from the North? She looks like she could be Spanish, but her name is distinctly American.
She looks nice. Like someone I’d like to know. I admit, I did Google Elvira, to see if I could find out more about her. I was a bit worried about what I’d find – after all, I’ve looked at the photo so much that I feel like I know her, and what if her life hadn’t been a good one? I did find a fair amount about other Elvira Coxes, but not this one.
Whoever you are, Ms. Metcalf, I think we would have gotten along. I would have loved to talk with you – with you and Mary and Nettie and everyone from all of the photographs. Just to let you know that someone was thinking of you. Years – perhaps decades, or even a century after you died – a girl from Canada was thinking of you, wondering about you and wishing you well.
I wonder if I’ll be that lucky someday.