An interesting photograph: a pair of young women—one slightly older than the other, but both young—hugging a pair of little boys. They all look Hispanic. One of the young women is wearing something resembling a red tutu. I wondered: who are these people?
I took the picture with me to work, and posted it on the wall above my cube. Later the tech guy came by my desk, sipping at his coffee, and he asked, “Who are they?”
“That’s my family,” I said.
The tech guy looked shocked. Then he said, “Wow, they’re beautiful.”
They are indeed. And, by now, they really are my family. I don’t know who they were then, or what was going when the shot was taken. I don’t know what they were like, or what happened to them. They’re forgotten—except by me.
I have these same sort of weird feelings when I look at other old photos. I can burn hours going through online photo archives (these hours aren’t lost, by the way—my imagination is working the whole time, and that’s part of my job as a writer and a teacher). The other day I was helping a friend look for pictures of cats to illustrate a book he’s doing of cat essays, and the afternoon passed with my eyes in the archive, looking at cats, but other things, too. Pictures of the forgotten, mostly—people who existed at one time, but now don’t, and are forgotten despite images stuck away somewhere.
I love the little girl with the cat in the Dorothea Lange photo above. Who is she—what’s she thinking? Seems darn proud of that pretty cat. And what’s with that kid peering out the window? Who are these people—and what happened to them? We’ll never know. They’re forgotten.
The forgotten inhabit books, too, of course. Years ago I went to a lecture given by Ian Frazier, who talked of doing research for his book Great Plains. He said he’d go into a rare book collection at a university and look at the hundreds and hundreds of settler memoirs on the shelves, each one inhabited by a ghost who would leap out and grab him by the throat and say “Let me tell you about my life!”
The photos are like that, too. Images of the forgotten who want—who demand!—to tell you about their lives.
My favorite archives:
The Shorpy Historic Photo Archive
National Archives and Records Administration
Diane Keaton has put together some interesting books of photos she’s taken from archives, including Local News, Bill Woods’ Business, and Still Life. In 2007, Larry McMurtry wrote an appreciation of Keaton’s work for the New York Review of Books, and he talks quite a bit about the concept of the forgotten....