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What is it about photographs? They have been around since the 1830s but still seem far more novel than paintings or drawings. Photography equipment can be cheap and simple and takes no special talent to use, so everybody can take pictures. And we all do. Even so, it requires very special talent to make great photographs, and those who have it are among our finest artists.
The most important thing about photographs may be that they seem to be an exact replica of reality, though of course they’re not. Everything about a photograph is artificial and manipulated, from the camera and film (or computer chip) to the light, the focus, the angle, the framing, and the flat, fragile surface itself. The only things natural are usually hidden from the viewer—the eye and mind of the photographer and the hand that pushes the button.
The naturalist illusions of photographs make them favorite vehicles of memory. By freezing a moment in time, they seem to offer an immediate vision of pure reality. You look at a photograph and suddenly you are there on the scene, back at the moment when the shutter clicked and everything stood still. As historian Scott Matthews writes in this issue’s “Not Forgotten,” photographs are “torchbearers of memory” that seem to take us to the past as it really was, without distortion or deception. Family photos in particular can carry us back to vanished times, places, and people, “to reconstruct,” as Matthews puts it, “a society that look[s] at once familiar and foreign.” No one knows better than Matthews about the artificial and illusionary character of photographs. It is this artificial character that allows photos to carry so many warm memories. The photographer’s unobserved power to manipulate and capture a scene passes to the photograph itself, which continues to recreate a vision in memory—not the reality itself but the one we want to see and the photographer intended us to see. Knowing this, we still cherish our family snapshots. For Matthews and for us, the act of remembering repairs frayed connections [End Page 1] to beloved people and the beloved past they lived in, restoring a precious sense of belonging to a ruptured world—he to them, they to him.
Are photographs special in the South? All around the world, people love their memories and their snapshots. But the South is often obsessed with memory, not only private and personal recollections, but public ones as well. “Old times there are not forgotten,” “Dixie” promises, and the Matthews box of family pictures is labeled “The Good Ol’ Days.”
Is it the apparent truth and changelessness of photographs that makes them especially resonant for southern memory? Southerners have been through many changes that many of us did not welcome, and white southerners are especially apt to sentimentalize the past. A people whose “peculiar institution” long seemed, at least, to protect them from (or deprive them of) the hurley-burley of social and economic change, grew attached to things as they were. A society in constant motion, where any problem could be solved by moving away from it, held few charms. Antebellum southerners moved in great numbers from the South Atlantic to the Gulf states, only to recreate there a society based on the appearance of stability. Many others remained in communities where keeping a colonial land grant was not unheard of, and remembering great-grandparents was unremarkable. Much that followed those “good old days” was painful: military defeat, revolutionized race relations, the sting of poverty, the lure of cities, the sale of the old homeplace. And white southerners are not alone in such memories. No matter what suffering they endured, the blood and sweat of black southerners made the South their home. The Great Migration northward brought disappointment along with opportunity, which some have tried to remedy by reverse migration.
No wonder southerners hang on to...