Whenever I see old family photographs, they often look as if the whole gestalt of that moment were peaceful, tranquil. If by some magic you could go back there now, maybe you could wander out of the frame and enjoy the picnic, the party, the holiday, that was the occasion for the photo. People seem to be enjoying themselves because after all they are all smiling, right? You don't get what went on before the moment caught on film, or after. All you have is a person with a smile, or maybe a funny face.
My son posted a picture of me with my mother on Mothers' Day this year. I must have been between two and three years old, and because the picture is not that clear and the faces very tiny, all I ever saw was my mother, perfectly groomed, and me with my polished white shoes and yellow dress holding her hand and waving.
But when I tried to get a closer look at my face by enlarging the photo, I could see that I was actually very unhappy. I was smiling, but obviously through tears. I was choking back emotion, trying to do what was asked and smile.
Perhaps going back in time to that place would not be a good choice for me. I doubt I would find it tranquil, and I know I would not find myself happy.
I am drawn to old photos, especially because I like to imagine what daily life was like before I was born. The older I get, the more I think many things have stayed the same. People still love to gather around a table or the fire with a good meal or even just a cup of tea. In spite of all the electronic hand-held devices we have, and connections to each other and the huge resources of the internet, there is still great joy in conversation and discourse.
We want to hear a good story, so we turn on our modern storytellers, and watch Downton Abbey or Mad Men. In my family this provides hours of conversation about plot lines, attention to historical references and objects, anachronisms and character arc. We appreciate or deprecate camera work, setting, or wardrobe. Gossiping is what we do, actually, about all the story brings to us. We tear it apart, and put it together again, like some jigsaw puzzle that can fit together, miraculously, with very different perspectives.
We like to hear about the "begats" as they are sometimes called, especially as we age. We want to know where we fit, what our place is in the family tree. So we work on geneology, and sign up for Ancestry.com. We get our DNA tested, and see where our predecessors really came from. We look for birth mothers, and birth fathers, if we were adopted. We bite on the information that has come down to us through our families to test it and see if, like gold, it is real.
Family secrets drive us mad, but I am sure from the beginning, every family had them.
If we could travel back in time and get at the hidden information, would we? It's risky business. Are those pictures we study more than just pleasant reminders of special occasions?
It's risky business, even, to take a magnifying glass to one of those photos. You might discover there is information that you would be happier not knowing.
But you might also unlock a treasure. You might find that a feeling you had but couldn't justify, had an explanation. You might discover that you were right about something that your family had insisted never happened. You might solve a personal mystery.
Moments caught in time can be more than a Still Life.