- “The Injuries of Time and Weather”
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When I was a child I would take "forced" naps at my grandmother's house on a daybed in a room on her second floor. Photographs covered the entire wall above me while I slept, and I well remember waking to first sight of unknown relatives, some in casual attire and others in more formal studio poses, parading across the wall in assorted sizes and frames. Most of the faces were unknown to me, appearing as wayfaring strangers in a family collection, unfamiliar in any way except that I'd seen the wall many times before. I knew the photographs but nothing of what they meant. My grandparents could point at the wall and talk endlessly about this person and that, the day the picture of my mother was taken, what happened to that tree my uncle was standing next to, which Sunday on which farm that picture comes from, the day the lightning struck that house, who this is and when that person lived. That wall was my first regular exposure to photographs, to what they mean to the people who made and have them, and to how the meanings shift over time and place and through the stories of different people.
Like many others, I took my own first pictures when I was a child. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I had a small Kodak camera that used 127 film. I started organizing the world through the view finder of my camera when I was seven or eight, photographing what was closest to me day by day: family, home, and scenes of the everyday. One of my early pictures is of a bird feeder hanging from a maple tree out the back door of our house. My grandfather's cousin, who we called Uncle Charlie, worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal and made bird feeders as a hobby. He was known for these wooden feeders the way people become known for what they make and share. I remember him bringing us the feeder, shaped like a house, the roof covered with a few red asphalt shingles. My picture is nothing if not the innocent and naïve work of a child, an upward gaze that can't quite reach or frame the entire object. With the feeder way beyond my reach, the camera allowed me to get a little closer, or at least offered an illusion of more immediate connection and closeness. And now, all the many years later, the photograph exists for me as a way into a remembered time and place. We didn't see Uncle Charlie very often, and I was prompted to take the picture after overhearing that he had either fallen very ill or had died, I can't remember which. Whatever the case, the news of his failing sent me looking to photograph the bird feeder he made.
Paradoxically, my memory of that tree, the feeder, and Charlie Johanboeke are now dominated—even maybe controlled—by a small snapshot photograph. Not that I couldn't recall it all without the photograph—I can, for instance, still see him in my mind's eye getting out of his car in his long dark overcoat and hat, carrying the bird feeder on the day he brought it to our house—but I know that memory and those times mostly through the portal of this one flawed photograph. [End Page 4]
Into More Lasting Form
Describing his 1843 Salt print from a calotype negative of Queens College, Oxford, William Henry Fox Talbot, writing in...