- The Day Is Past and GoneFamily Photographs from Eastern North Carolina
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“It is in fact hard to get the camera to tell the truth; yet it can be made to, in many ways and on many levels. Some of the best photographs we are ever likely to see are innocent domestic snapshots . . . .”—James Agee (1946)
“One of the most envied accompaniments of high birth in the past is becoming almost universal. Almost everyone nowadays is possessed of family portraits . . . As in the case of jewels, there is something fictitious about the store which is set by them. Nevertheless the fascination of such heirlooms is eternal.”—The Living Age (1913)1
The family photographs presented here come from a collection my great-aunt kept at the family home-place in the Rosebud community of Wilson County, North Carolina. Stowed away in shoeboxes marked “The Good Ol’ Days,” these photographs chronicle life in a small corner of the coastal plain from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. The pictures portray the cycles and rhythms of rural life and the people who shaped the region’s unique landscape and language, architecture and culture. The families seen in the photographs—Matthews, Taylor, Pender, Varnell, Barnes, Flowers—intermarried and created a community sustained by agriculture, barbecues, hunting, fishing, and visits on the porch.
Family, private, personal, domestic photographs—however you choose to name them, they often seem unremarkable to those unfamiliar with the people and places depicted in the pictures. They do not aspire to art. If they are propaganda, it is of the familial sort. Domestic photographs can seem commonplace and pedestrian unless you care to take an empathetic, imaginative leap into the lives of the people in the images or, especially, if you have a personal connection to them. Then they seem alive and of inestimable value. They are what you would grab first in a fire.
In recent years, I made regular visits to my great-aunt’s house on my way to and from school in central Virginia. She and my grandfather were born in this house, which my great-grandfather built around 1900. Though many of the trees that provided shade in earlier years have succumbed to storms or pruning, the home remains a quintessential eastern North Carolina farmhouse: a white, one-story, symmetrical square plan with a low, hipped roof and wraparound porch. Each time I pulled in the long driveway toward the house, my great-aunt stood waiting by the door, ready to get right back on the road and “carry me” to Parker’s bbq a few miles south for supper. When we returned home we would sit on the porch, weather permitting, and after a while move into the living room to watch sports, game shows, or sitcoms from the 1960s.
As evening turned into night, and after three or four bottles of Coke, which my great-aunt kept well stocked for my visits, I always turned my attention to the drawer in the living room that served as a portal to my family’s past. Inside was [End Page 111] an ancient family Bible, containing birth records from the 1760s, my great-great- grandfather’s Confederate veteran ribbons, scattered pages from the Primitive Baptist newspaper, scraps of paper with song lyrics composed for a funeral (“The hand of death alone can blot / Those images from my heart / Forget, forsake me if you will / You never shall be forgot”), a summons from 1911 to testify in court on behalf of the plaintiff, along with many other items used to mark favorite passages of Scripture. Next to the Bible sat the shoeboxes of photographs. They ranged from glass-plate studio portraits from the late nineteenth century to Polaroid Instamatics of more recent vintage. The bulk of the photographs, however, originated from the 1920s through the 1940s and documented daily...