Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Self Portrait Tuesday - Personal History #1

With everything else going on it's been a while since I've last posted anything for SPT, but this new challenge was too good to pass up, in particular as only yesterday evening I had a conversation with a friend who is staying over and saw all the old photographs in our hall. I was amazed that she recognised members of my family from the pictures and was able to pick out resemblances and family links.

This is a picture of my great grandmother on my granddad's side.

In On Photography, Susan Sontag states:

'All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt' (Sontag, p. 15).

I think this is true. Every photograph, while capturing the world, also captures a moment in time, always already past, gone, never to return. It gives photographs, even of the most mundane subjects, an air of nostalgia and longing.
When I look at old pictures like this one they reveal as much as they hide. I long to grasp what links me to the woman that was my great grandmother. Who was she?

I have heard about her of course. My grandmother and my father both told me. Beautiful she was, imposing, and cold, apparently. She ruled the family, and where my grandmother's mother was warm and nurturing, she was stern and disciplined. Unlikely to be indulgent, even towards her grandchildren. It was her husband who would sometimes slip a few pennies into my father's hand to buy sweets with. Secretly, so she wouldn't know. He also grew tobacco in the back of the garden after the war so he could continue smoking, even when cigarettes were hard to come by. I wonder what she thought of that.

My father, so I gather, was not too fond of this grandmother and always preferred to visit my gran's mother and father, who were kind and happy to spoil their grandchild with love and affection. Nevertheless, or possibly because of what I know of her, I feel curiously drawn to look at my great grandmother's photograph, trying to merge what I see and what I hear into one image of who she was. Yesterday, when looking at a picture of my great grandmother on the wall, our friend asked me if she was one of my relatives and noted the facial similarities between her and my father.

Old family photographs are like that. They beckon with mysteries. They show our links with the past, show us that we 'belong', but at the same time they are symbols of time, passing. Of what we don't know. Will never know.

Other interpretations of the theme can be found in the Self Portrait Tuesday Blog.


  1. I feel the same way about photographs. The old photographs that are displayed at museums always fascinate me. I wonder what the people were thinking and what their lives were like.

    Your great grandmother was beautiful. It's interesting to hear how people remembered her and to look at the photograph.

  2. Anonymous5:15 pm

    a stunning looking woman. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Anonymous9:55 pm

    I am absolutely fascinated by old photographs. They are glimpses of the past, frozen moments in time. It is a bonus to be able to put a story to a face.

  4. Anonymous10:46 pm

    a great post! i love to hear about people in photographs.

  5. Anonymous12:18 am

    About 15 years ago Mum and I were at a market fair and I saw this beautiful group portrait shot - very old- sepia etc and had to bring it home. I don't know who the people are but I plan on framing it and giving them a place in our home one day (a lot goes into the planing heh heh)

  6. i'm with francoise - absolutely fascinated by old photos. i love how the women always looks so dignified and the men so stern. my own family is from an eastern european peasant background - so they always look poor, disheaveled but happy!

    i read susan sontag's book in my first year of university - and some of her sentiments are still so relevant.