“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – said Ansel Adams.
That’s were Beloved took up position.
He was an excellent photographer. He had kept photograph albums of his own work from the time before we were together, a round dozen of them, which I inherited. He took many more photographs in our thirty years together, those I am keeping for now. But the early ones I filleted, sorted the pictures according to subject and, where I recognised the person, passed them on. I have only two small piles of pictures left, mostly of former colleagues, musicians all, which I am going to send to the Royal Opera House for distribution. A rather larger pile is of landscapes, cityscapes, mountains, rivers, the ancient bricks and mortar of European towns, churches, cathedrals, castles, market squares, secret passages in backwater villages, balconies overflowing with geraniums in French and Italian cobbled streets. What to do with these? I have many more in the albums I am going to keep; while I am alive they shall help to remind me of holidays we took in our time together. But what about the others? What to do with them?
I am not as good a photographer as Beloved was, I shan’t feel obliged to keep my own photos when his are so much better. But I have ancient photographs from a time before I was born, pictures of figures in formal dress, people I can no longer place, if I ever could. From my parents I inherited a boxful of loose pictures as well as three albums, the last one of which is a chaos of unrelated images which, as a child, I glued in without order, with the subjects unnamed and long forgotten. There is no one left who could help me identify them. I’d love to know who the smartly dressed lady is, elegantly and elaborately coiffeured, in a long, flowing skirt, a white frilled high necked blouse with sleeves puffed to the elbow and from there to the wrists tightly buttoned. She is standing upright next to a chair on which, standing stiffly to attention, is a small child in a dark dress with a white pinafore, white stockings and black, shiny shoes. A boy? A girl? I vaguely remember Mum saying : this is aunt somebody, but whose aunt, hers or her mother’s?
We take hundreds of photographs which we post on social media (or not) where they will be preserved for eternity. Or at least for as long as our current form of social media exists. Since I have uploaded my pictures on to a screen I no longer stick them into albums. I had a look the other day, it says there are 6.000 of them; I sincerely hope that most of them are doubles and trebles; I surely have not taken 6.000 images? What on earth for?
Since Beloved died I have hardly taken any, fewer than I can count on the fingers of one hand: one of the German Bundesadler (Federal Eagle) in the Consulate where I applied for my new passport, one of the instructions on the inside of the Aga door how to operate the cooker, (which didn’t come out readable), a couple of spring flower beds. No more.
Some time in 2016 I treated myself to a new camera, idiot-proof the salesman said; I must have given the impression of an accomplished photographer. I still haven’t learned how to use it to its full capacity, little effort on my part leading to little progress. There must be someone who will teach me. The University of the Third Age does a photography class but I think you need to know how to handle the mechanics at the very least.
Old photographs have something so sad about them, the subjects no longer exist, they have become mere ghosts of the past, our own past, or our families' past. Gathering dust at worst, stuck in forgotten old-fashioned albums at best, they slowly fade and with them fade our memories. Here are a few lines taken from Philip Larkin’s “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”.
But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
. . . .
How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
In every sense empirically true!
. . . .
Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being you; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.