14 August 2013

Post Facto - Life in pictures: Tales from photo albums old and new

My Sunday Guardian column for this fortnight:

Lately I've been looking at photographs a lot. Some of them are old, and many are new. The old ones are pictures from my grandparents' house in Calcutta, most of them in black and white. You know those large hard-bound albums made up of sheets of thick, dull-black chartpaper, into which the photos are pasted using those stiff gummed triangles referred to a long time ago as photo-corners? Well, anyway, the photos I've been looking at are the ones that somehow escaped being pasted into one of those albums. Or perhaps they're the ones that have, over the last few years, been picked out of many different such albums by my aunt (my grandmother died in 1998; the house is now my aunt's). In any case, they're a mixed-up bunch of pictures, spilling out of some four different envelopes that are beginning to tear at the edges, but more or less ensconced in the large brown folder my aunt has chosen for them.

I spent my first hour with the folder thumbing through the pictures slowly, absorbing the faded edges of the one, the ageing blacks of another. I looked at my aunts and uncles and parents and cousins as they were 30-odd-years ago, versions of them that I had grown up with but blotted out slowly, replacing them with inevitable older ones. I discovered moments in the lives of my grandparents that I had heard about in family stories, but didn't know there were pictures of. And of course, each photograph is a story.
There is the first trip to Kashmir in 1946, my nana and nani framed for the first time as a couple — he looking young and slightly bemused, wearing a sleeveless sweater a little too tight for him, ending at his waist to reveal loose pleated trousers; she attempting a tentative smile, in a collared woollen coat tightly buttoned over her sari. There is nothing in the background that might establish the locale — an electric switchboard, and the fragment of an arch. Only the warm clothes indicate where they might be — my grandparents were married in mid-April, and even if they went a week or a month later, the weather in Kashmir must still have been cool. Nani's too-warm coat speaks of the first-time traveller expecting the worst, but her happily windswept hair and the huge bunches of wildflowers reveal a young Calcuttan gladly surprised by spring in Sonamarg.
But no matter how much the context has changed, that desire to reflect experience back onto ourselves is left over from the old idea of photographs as signposts. It’s as if the more photos we take, the more eventful our lives will become.
At the bottom of this picture, staring frankly out at us is a little boy. My mama: the seven-year-old child of my grandfather's late first wife. My nana was a widower and a nationalist reformer who had vowed that if he married again, it would be a widow: he practiced the widow remarriage he campaigned for so avidly. My nani was a child widow who had managed to return to her parents' home and thence to school. When they married, my uncle was brought back from his grandparental home in Jaipur to live with them. It is a photograph that captures the gauche, idealistic beginning of a life experiment together.
There are other pictures of my grandparents: another one taken in Kashmir looks like it is a few years later, with my nana now gravely filling out a black sherwani. My nani no longer looks young and dishevelled, caught unawares: her new smile is quietly confident, and her sari pallu emerges out of a new coat, draping itself lightly over her head like a scarf. There are freshly-cut flowers in this picture, too, but a tidier, smaller bunch, held dignifiedly at waist-level. Seen alongside the previous picture, everything here signals a transition into mature domesticity.
The pictures in the folder feel like signposts, marking points along my grandparents' journey together, as well as moments of individual achievement for both — a trip to the Acropolis, a meeting with Nehru, a political speech, a commemorative function, a family reunion.
Looking at them got me thinking about how clearly photographs once demarcated experience. The camera was still rare enough that using it involved choosing in advance which moments out of the flow of everyday life were deemed worthy of stillness, of capturing in perpetuity. Of course, that process of decision-making also edited out many things: the serious and the important were usually chosen over the playful, the normal.
Now the camera is so ubiquitous that we take photographs of everything all the time: not just marriages and meetings, children and pets and ourselves on holiday, but restaurant food and meals cooked oneself, shop signs, new flowers in the garden. And then we put them on Facebook.
But no matter how much the context has changed, that desire to reflect experience back onto ourselves is left over from the old idea of photographs as signposts. It's as if the more photos we take, the more eventful our lives will themselves become. But of course, the opposite happens. Pictures lose their value as signposts. They cease to mark eventfulness. Italo Calvino cottoned onto the profound, disturbing irony of it all as far back as 1958. "The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow." Now, as I look through another folder — this time a virtual one — of my own photographs from a summer in Kashmir, I think about Calvino and try to decide which is which. As I bring my many hundreds of images down to a shareable fifty, I arrive at the terrible truth: earlier we edited our lives to take pictures. Now we edit pictures to create our lives.

No comments: