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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Family Pictures Shape Memory

An excerpt from my essay

"Family Pictures Shape Memory."

Chican@s in the Conversations

Eds. Elizabeth Rodriguez Kessler and Anne Perrin.
New York: Longman (2007).


Photographs of my intersection with self and history are images that have a profound impact on the way I remember my past. These images exist thankfully because of the photographs taken by my father (who made a career out of snapping the lives of others on film), and by photographers whose identities have long been erased from the memory of my family members: my elderly mother or my aunts and other uncles, repositories of my family history, some of whom are now frail, in their eighties, early nineties, or dead. Collected and stored by my mother--a woman who never throws anything away--thousands of pictures stuffed in albums, in envelopes, in dressers, and in boxes are now in my possession. The best I could gather over the past two decades line the walls of my home. These images of family members and friends, some long dead, some still alive, intrigue me. I wonder just who all these people and images I grew up with really were and what they were actually doing when the photographs were taken? Often there are no captions to inform the viewer of anything, so I wondered what had occurred just prior to the click of the shutter or just after. Why are the subjects in the snapshots positioned just so? What directions were the subjects receiving from the photographer? What responses were being directed back at the photographer? Were the subjects told to look just off-camera, put on lipstick, smooth a misplaced hair, or simply just told after a 1-2-3 count to “Smile? What did the photographs so masterfully composed not show or tell about the people or events captured? Was the attention centered on the picture=s real subject? What kind of statement was being made as a result? Was the photographer taking a kind of revenge on a particular subject or offering forgiveness?
During this looking and recalling, I had many discussions with my mother about the treasure trove of photographs she so lovingly and caringly saved along with her idealized and/or perceived memories. Mother's descriptions often suffered from an occasional fuzzy memory exacerbated by poor eyesight. It was then that I would discuss these photographs with aunts and uncles who often affirmed or contradicted Mother's (re)memories of the very same images. Within the contradictions misconceptions about memory arise, and although photographs evoke memories those memories do not simply spring out of the images themselves; they generate meaning-making, traces, suggestions of something else-disagreements within family culture.
Moreover, any references to my parent's ultimately unhappy marriage, lasting only eight years and ending in divorce, were also cause for conflicting narratives and, at times, distorting the topography of remembrance. Looking back on realities and ideals shared between us, fueled by countless 8x10 glossies, Mother (without realizing it) ended up assisting me in producing narrative complements or imagetexts, which allowed me to fill in what the pictures left out. . . . . . . .

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