Home Again, house sitting again.
Lookin’ through.. photos, at the back of your drawer
The way that you looked, When you were small
[The Auteurs, Home Again ]
It is said that a picture paints a thousand words; this cut no ice with the editor who made it quite clear she wanted the thousand words as well. This week, after an enjoyable hour spent at home, rummaging through a box full of Agfa, Trucolor, and Spectra envelopes, the words are about pictures.
Pictures like this one of me and a cow in a field.
The cow is one of ours – affectionately known as Number 10. As I look at her now, I remember I was afraid of Number 10 because I thought she was staring specifically at me (and she once stood on my toe when I was putting her in the stall). She later played a starring role in a series of childhood nightmares called: Being Chased Around The Bathroom By Bison While The Theme Tune From RTE Radio 1’s Late Date Plays In The Background.
Each element of the photo seems to release hours of footage from the vaults. Marcel Proust wrote the 3200-page novel ‘Remembrance of Times Past’ after the taste of a madeleine tea-cake triggered a flood of memories of his childhood. Imagine how long the book would have been if he had had his picture taken with the cake while wearing embarrassingly short shorts. Admittedly Proust did live at a time when children rarely dressed like a twenty-something woman going to Oxegen. The shorts in Remembrance Of A Cow In A Field are, of course, hand-me-downs – in fact I think I handed them down to myself. Indeed as I flick through snaps of the rest of the family I can see the progression of clothes through the siblings. An item of clothing may have started out life as a Sunday Best but over time, as it moved through owners, its status was eroded until eventually it was worn when going out to feed the hens. Its decline is like that of a Dublin Georgian townhouse in which a well-to-do family once listened to harpsichord recitals but latterly became a tenement.
The other photograph marks a day even more momentous than the one I inadvertently kick-started festival-wear for women: the day I got my first tracksuit AND learned I could raise one eyebrow independently of the other. Obviously I was destined to eventually pursue a career in sardonic leisure.
The photographs in the box were mainly from the 1980s, or, The Decade Of The Jumper. The 1980s jumper was a many-splendoured thing. They boasted designs that seemed to be inspired by art hanging in the offices of Ewing Oil. While many aspects of the fashion of the decade make periodic returns, these jumpers looked be consigned only to family snaps and footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Old photographs are also fascinating for what the camera does not aim at: the incidental details like landscape in the background and objects who peep into the corner. Houses that have changed after children arrived or grew up and left; hedges that were planted and spiralled out of control AND JUST HOW MUCH WARM WEATHER WE USED TO GET IN SUMMER.
There must have been plenty of sunshine because there are a large number of pictures of my father putting sunglasses on the dog. And make no mistake, a dog wearing sunglasses is always funny.
Our cats and dogs have changed over the years so it’s heartening to have a record of most of them. The dogs had quite long careers; treating life at O’Regan Towers as a good, pensionable, civil service job. Cats changed more frequently. Their lives were more turbulent. Scrapes with foxes and man-made hazards like cars and poison were frequent. The general “am I bovvered?” attitude of cats also meant they decamped to other places when they fancied a change.
Of course it’s the humans that trigger the most memories as I flick through the snaps. Family, friends, classmates, neighbours who have moved on or in some cases passed on look out from a variety of parties, occasions, functions, dos and visits.
It strikes me how important it is to keep taking pictures of the people and things that are around us – people, rooms, houses, the neighbourhood. Some photos that may seem banal now might have a much stronger resonance in future years. (Although I’m not suggesting you keep a telephoto lens trained on the neighbour’s front bedroom, unless you’ve found something on their voicemail).
The other thing about the photographs that most families have at the back of a cupboard is that they are not stored on a hard-drive or on a CD or on Facebook. They are in a box. They can be held and passed around in all their fading glory. And the bad ones are there as well. All the closed eyes and missing heads and feet, all the blurry, shaky, standing-four-hundred-feet-away-from-the-subjects-as-they-squint-into-a-remorseless-sun ones, all the snaps done with the self-timer where the entire family opens their mouths to express doubt that ‘that yoke is ever going to go off’ at the wrong time, so that the entire family looks as if they are protesting something. They are all inside The Box. Even though these imperfect images caused a groan when they were first thumbed through outside the chemist, now they seem just as important as the perfect shots. Perhaps because they tell a little more about the person taking the picture, but also because people are imperfect anyway so it seems almost appropriate that the subject should be standing in the extreme right of a photograph, the rest of which is filled with a breeze-block wall.
Most photos now stay on phones and computers or in a Facebook data center in Palo Alto. Until I had a root through The Box, I had more enthusiasm about filling the Self-Assessment tax form than printing out photos but now I think I’ll revisit the archives to see what I might like to have and to hold.
The good and the bad – shorts and all.