Fi­nal Anal­y­sis Try­ing to un­der­stand the past

Roger Hicks con­sid­ers… ‘Old Aunt Ju­lia Ann Jack­son, Arkansas’, c1937, un­known photographer

Amateur Photographer - - Final Analysis -

It’s an odd pose. Her back is all but turned on the cam­era, and the oil drum that is her stove is al­most ac­corded more im­por­tance than she is. Her shack is de­scribed in the cap­tion as a corn crib – that is, it was once a store for cat­tle food. She is an ex-slave. She is 102 years old: born, there­fore, in 1836 and in her mid-twen­ties when the Civil War broke out.

The pic­ture is frankly a bit rough technically, but was prob­a­bly taken by a writer work­ing for the US Works Progress Ad­min­is­tra­tion, record­ing in writ­ing, sound and pic­tures the ex­pe­ri­ences of the last liv­ing ex-slaves. It’s a con­tact print (marked Ko­dak Velox on the back), prob­a­bly shot on 22/122 roll­film: six shots, each 3½ x 5½in, 9x14cm. In other words, it is to some ex­tent the equiv­a­lent of giv­ing a mod­ern re­porter a cam­era and at most some ba­sic train­ing, and telling them to il­lus­trate their own ar­ti­cles. It’s a very far cry from the su­perb pic­tures taken by so many gov­ern­ment pho­tog­ra­phers of the era. But – here’s the rub – wouldn’t you rather see this pic­ture than no pic­ture? De­spite its tech­ni­cal short­com­ings, there’s still an enor­mous amount of de­tail in the print. No mat­ter how much you blow it up, you still can’t see much of her face, but you can see the veins in her big, gnarled hands and wrists. And, of course, the pic­ture is still here, 80 or so years af­ter it was taken. Longevity counts for a lot. Ask Aunt Ju­lia.

Now, start try­ing to put your­self into her place. Those steps are steep. You don’t want the rock­ing chair to be too far from them, and you want to be in the shade. She may or may not have re­ceived an old-age pen­sion: th­ese were still a con­tested is­sue in the 1930s and the av­er­age age of re­tire­ment was 72. Do you want to re­mem­ber some of the things you are be­ing asked about? Re­mem­ber, in her teens she was lit­er­ally a slave girl. And the shack? Well, it ain’t great, but there are white fam­i­lies liv­ing in con­di­tions as bad, or worse.

We can never fully un­der­stand the past; pos­si­bly, not even if we re­mem­ber it. But un­less we try to un­der­stand it, and to re­mem­ber what we can, and to put our­selves in the place of oth­ers; well, as Ge­orge San­tayana said, ‘those who do not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it.’ Most things are bet­ter now than they have ever been; some are worse; and there’s no law say­ing that any of them have to stay that way. Roger Hicks has been writ­ing about pho­tog­ra­phy since 1981 and has pub­lished more than three dozen books on the sub­ject, many in part­ner­ship with his wife Frances Schultz (visit his new web­site at www.rogerand­frances.eu). Ev­ery week in this col­umn Roger de­con­structs a clas­sic or con­tem­po­rary pho­to­graph. Next week he con­sid­ers an im­age by Mikhael Subotzky.

‘As Ge­orge San­tayana said, “those who do not re­mem­ber the past are con­demned to re­peat it”’

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