Old photographs for sale in antique or second-hand stores always give me pause. I wonder about the unknown names associated with those forgotten faces, and also – who buys these photographs? Someone in search of insta-ancestor? Historic photographs not only provide a glimpse into the past at faces familiar and dear (and sometimes comical), but can be valuable tools for researchers studying buildings and landscapes. In my own family photographs, I zealously comb through images of grandparents, cousins, and friends to find the glimpse of a building lurking behind the people. More often than not, only corners of dwellings are captured in these sepia, and black and white prints. I therefore issue this proclamation – take your family photos in front of your house and label them! Who knows the long term benefits of your actions?
Despite a pretty well-documented clan, there are some sides to my family tree that don’t offer up their stories easily. My paternal grandfather, a veteran of World War I, died before I was born. A reticent man, he didn’t speak much about his family – of course, confronted with the effusive and quite verbose members of his wife’s family, he may not have had much of a choice. The photograph above helped us identify the house in which he grew up in Owinsgville, Bath County, Kentucky.
For me, and my affinity for architecture, it felt enormously satisfying to put a face with a house. Stories tie people together – and in the absence of those stories, and in the absence of those people, places also fulfill a sense of connection. The photograph of that front yard, crowded with generations of family and dogs, may just seem like a charming old photograph to some – but labeled, and with that delightful and distinctive portico embellished with ivy in the background providing an important clue – it becomes a real place, replete with meaning and memory.