"Instant Relatives": Finding
Family Photos In Second-Hand Stores
| "[T]radition can be shown ... to be a selection and reselection
of those significant received and recovered elements of the past
which represent not a necessary but a desired continuity."
---Raymond Williams, The Sociology of Culture (New York, 1981), p. 187.
"The content of the Web aspires to absolute variety. One might find anything there. It is like rummaging in the forefront of the collective global mind. Somewhere, surely, there is a site that contains . . . everything we have lost?"
---William Gibson, "The Net," New York Times Magazine, July 14 1996, p. 31.
| Raymond Williams' idea of tradition intrigues me. He argues that tradition is not merely a community's collective memory, but that this memory is actively created and re-created. This process for Williams includes the recovery of elements of the past that have been lost or differently understood and are needed now because of changes in the present and the foreseen future. (This reshaping of tradition may also be very contested and turbulent, as Williams fully knew, though he doesn't stress this in the above quotation.) These links to the past must also be desired, must be shaped: they are not just simply there, as givens passively inherited and taken for granted.
Compare Williams' idea with with this experience: in many second-hand stores in the Philadelphia area I have found old family photographs for sale. In one store, they were dumped in a plastic milk-crate carton---many more than a single person could go through, even with several hours to spend. The carton was labeled "instant relatives" and many of the photos were being sold for as little as 50¢ each. They come from many different families in the area but also included families and scenes outside of Pennsylvania, in places as far away as Texas and China. I gathered these particular photographs in the mid-1990s. Many of my "source" second-hand stores are no longer in existence. One, in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, PA, is now a BED, BATH AND BEYOND store. Who knows what happened to all the thousands of items in the store when its owner(s) sold it? They were probably sold in many different lots to many different other collectors and store-owners. In short, becoming scattered wanderers yet again.....
The snapshots that I am especially drawn to in these second-hand shops are not studio shots by professional photographers (there are many of these in second-hand stores too), but snapshots taken by the friends or family members themselves. Although these are posed photographs, they tend to have more personal and unpredictable touches, details, body language and even "mistakes" that provide an sad or delightful human touch: shadows of the photographer or other objects in the foreground, for example, or occasional blurriness or overexposure or double-exposures. Often also the expressions on people's faces show how close the anonymous photographer is to them.
Many photos feature immigrant families getting their first apartment in the city or a new house in the suburbs or countryside, as well as couples, babies, people celebrating special occasions, male and female soldiers in uniform, etc. The photos I've found tend to range from after the civil war through the 1950s, with the majority from the 1930s and 1940s. There were many houses and apartments shown, streets, fields, etc., but I can't recognize or "place" any of them---that is, connect the places shown in the photos with places I've been to. I don't recognize any of the people either, but their poses and expressions seem eerily familiar.
The photos probably came to be sold in second-hand stores because relatives did not claim them (or gather them and throw them out) after a death. Perhaps no relatives even appeared to go over the family possessions of the person who died. So the personal photos became part of an estate sale, to be treated like other pieces of property---furniture, etc. So the photos that celebrate family lineage and filiation and friendship---proud moments of togetherness, or single moments when a family member proudly poses before the camera---become now markers of a lack of remembering, of a loss of the desire for continuity: a unmemento that is also a dismembering. Many of the photos have torn material on their back side, as if there were glued to a photo album but then ripped from it---by whom? when? by someone interested in selling them each separately?
What is the meaning of the label "Instant Relatives" that was on one of the crates in a second-hand shop? I suppose this was meant to encourage potential buyers to see that they could buy them and then frame them and use them as nice "antique" wall or bureau decorations, adding "a personal touch" to the buyer's room. But there's an undertone to this message, of cynicism, maybe even despair.
On the day when I was going through the "instant relatives" milkcrate, it took me awhile to go through even a portion of the photos. There was no chair so I sat on the floor and gave up searching when my knees began to hurt. (I'd also assembled a fair selection by then.) Several different other customers in the shop, struck by my absorption in the task but also a little taken aback by it, made the same joke: "find anyone you know?"---as if that could or should be my primary reason for such labor.
I chose only a few out of hundreds. I remain haunted in a vague way by all the photos I let go for not being "striking" or individual enough. They slipped through my fingers like sand through the narrow of the hourglass. I am also haunted also by the faces that I "kept," that I "chose" to remember, and I now know these photos well enough to call their details up in memory.
In the middle of the search (it had begun spontaneously, without a thought about what to do with any photos I might want to buy) I suddenly decided to scan the photos and post them on the World Wide Web, as part of a larger Web project I was doing. My first impulse was a simple one: this would give these faces back something they had lost, would give them (maybe) a virtual family and a new identity. Perhaps it was also inspired somehow by the slogan---or perhaps it's a taunt as well as a boast---of the "Instant Relatives" sign.
But doubts surround me. Is doing this really any different from doing what the store encouraged me to do, framing them and putting them on the wall of a home as a work of art decor, an "instant relative," a simulacrum or maybe parody of a family memento album?
Does this act of mine really rescue these images from the cut-out bin, from the second-hand, and return to them a virtual family, a "desired continuity" of memory? Or does it multiply the exile of these images from human ties, making their wandering and their aura of loss no longer singular but infinite? But---an answering voice responds---isn't that the fate of all photos, even ones that stay within families? How long can photos really have powerful "meanings"---how long can they help carry family memories and stories that can be passed on---even if they stay within a family for generations? Perhaps their new virtual life can help us focus on the loss and presence that hovers simultaneously over the photos.
Another doubt---does reproducing these people's images violate their privacy or their anonymity, their right (now) to silence and to darkness?
Despite these and other questions, I decided to go ahead and reproduce these lost-and-found photographs on the Web, as you can see. So why do it? A way of sending them into the future and into unknown (but I hope sympathetic) gazes, sending them like souls after death travelling on a spirit road? A "continuity," a set of imagined ties, that must be desired....? A way of answering William Gibson's question (see the second epigraph at the top of this page)?---yet with the caveat that such an encyclopedic recovery of "all" that is lost may be a dream for the Web but it is also an impossible and poignant one.
Hungry ghosts, rest in peace....