Wednesday, August 6, 2008

That's Random: An Imagined History

Does this happen to anyone else? Whenever Nick and I are at the flea market or find ourselves poking around in a dusty old antiques shop, we're always drawn like metal to a magnet to the jumbled bins and boxes filled with old photographs.

This past weekend, in Alameda, we spent a good half-hour sifting through the contents of one such box and passing stacks of old black-and-white and sepia snapshots back and forth. How, we wondered, did these family photos come to be discarded like so much trash, tossed into a shoebox and set out for curious passersby to rummage through in search of nothing more than a few moments' amusement?

We chuckled at the strange, old-fashioned faces and the modest, voluminous bathing costumes. Whatever became of these rough-faced men standing so uncomfortable in their Sunday suits, to the young women with their elaborately marcelled hair, to the children in their home-sewn dressing gowns and short pants?

To fill in their unknowable stories, we whispered invented anecdotes about the nameless subjects of the forgotten images. "Oh, there's Aunt Beatrice chaperoning Helen's trip to the city. She was a battleaxe, that one. Nothing got past her." Or, "This was right before John shipped out. He was killed in the War, you know. Dorothy never got over it."

We goggled at the clothes and the hats and the shoes -- my god, so chic! Back then, going for a ride on the ferry or even taking a leisurely Sunday drive was an event to dress for. I tripped out a little bit on it, standing there under a flimsy flea market umbrella in my shorts and flip-flops, my hair pulled back in a sloppy weekend ponytail. Among the other hardships I'd be so very ill-equipped to deal with, had I been born in a different era, I think I would've had a nervous breakdown just trying to get out of the house.

We wound up buying a handful of the dog-eared photos. Our little game was fun, after all, and the pictures were only a few cents each. I'm not sure what we'll do with them. But somehow, these people -- strangers to us, every last one of them, and probably all long dead -- already felt like a part of the family.

10 comments:

katek said...

I've always done that--my husband gets so bored with waiting around while I sit down and sort through all the boxes of photos...

I get really sad sometimes when I find what is clearly a whole lifetime's worth of photos from one person or family. Like you said, what happened? How is there no one to treasure them? I sometimes feel really connected to certain faces I find in the photos and it's a good thing they are inexpensive and easy to store, since have to adopt them. I have a decent collection now of men with odd mustaches, wistful-looking kids, weird wedding photos... There's one set of 5 or 6 from one of those abandoned complete-lifetime boxes, pictures of the same two sisters from childhood through their 20s. Fascinating but sad.

Katie said...

I love that kind of thing too...I also like the old postcards, both for the pictures on the front, and the brief letters written on the back.

Tiffany S said...

I've purchased a few that I've found interesting, thinking I would incorporate them into a craft project or something.

One time in NY, I found a whole album of amateur nudie photos. Super creepy. That kept me away from albums for a long while.

Elizabeth said...

What fun! I do this looking through my parents old photos...there are so many people I don't know. It's also so interesting to see very old pictures of my nanny and grandma looking all chic and cool when I only know them as old italian women in black dresses! Love it!

John said...

I'm a long-time reader of your blog but I had to comment today because yesterday I picked up several boxes of vintage slides for $2 at the local flea market. I totally understand what draws you to things like this, even though you're not exactly sure what you'll do with the find.

On flickr, I found this interesting way to display slides.

I'm somewhat intrigued by the idea, but I think my ideal display would be something like this.

winstonandchloe said...

We actually have a tin type of a very severe looking woman hanging in the living room. We have NO IDEA who she is. She's in an interesting metal frame and was in a building slated for demolition. So we took her and hung her up.

Some people think she's spooky,but I'm used to her by now. Wouldn't want to be without her.

Melissa said...

Leah! I just found your blog and had to comment on the photos! This is sooo something my hubby and I would do at a flea market (play "guess the family story" game). Old photos are so dear to me. I have to beg aunts, etc to part with old photos (heaven forbid they figure out we can actually scan them and return them to their grubby little hands). I have to agree with you, when I think my life is too hectic, I remember those who lived without cell phones, flip-flops in public (haha), and a quick desperate run for Happy Meals on the way home from a busy day. I'll check in again soon. Have a great weekend!

Melissa said...

What I find interesting is that no matter how many old photos I look at, I find them all very similar. I can take my old photographs and hold them side by side to these and probably not even tell the difference.

I wonder if in 60 years time our grandkids will think exactly the same thing.

KB said...

I do this too! It's an especially good exercise for short story writing. Love your blog, and had to add my comment because you asked so nicely! :)

Kerry said...

I have the same addiction. My most prized one is of a Persian cat in a baby pram.

 

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