Other people’s albums

About ten years ago I bought an old album at the local pawn shop.  I normally stay away from the old black-and-white photos on sale at antique stores – because although the images are often fascinating, they are also totally removed from the context of family ancestry or historical setting, and I find the ethics of ripping apart old family albums to make a few dollars totally odious.  But I couldn’t stop myself from paying 4 lats ($8) for this album.  It was an instinctual thing at the time – what caught my eye was the fact that the album was completely intact.  From the old leather cover with a metal floral decal, to the inscription “To commemorate your confirmation, 26 May 1927”, to the carefully placed photos on every page.  When I noted to good condition of the album – the cardboard pages printed with green acorns – I imagined someone else buying it, removing all the photos and throwing them away, so that they could put their own photos in.   So I bought the album: to protect it, I guess.

Who knows how the album got there.  What kind of person sells their family photos?  Could it have been stolen?  Or was it trucked off with a load of stuff when someone was cleaning out the house of a deceased estate? Of course when I bought it, I had the idea that I might be able to locate the family and return it to them.  Latvia is such a small pond, so it is not a totally crazy idea.  I thought I might have been able to identify places, times, find names written on the back of the pictures - something to lead me to the family.  But this was to no avail.  None of the photos have any notes on the back of them.  Apart from the fact that the family lived in Cēsis, in the Vidzeme region of Latvia, I’ve got no leads. 

The album is the record of a family and their life over a period of around 40 years – I think the pics range from somewhere pre-1920s to the 1960s. My guess is that the album belonged to a certain man with wing-nut ears, who appears in many of the pictures. Throughout the pages we see Wing-nut as a young boy with his parents, on his confirmation day, on a nature walk, on his wedding day, in a portrait with his wife and young baby.  Later there are pictures of what I assume is Wing-nut’s grown son, pouring him a drink, pictures of him in the garden, now an aged man, braces holding up his pants.  Wing-nut and his wife look simple, but kind.  The people in the album are not particularly glamorous, good-looking, or rich – just ordinary people, like you and me. 

Towards the end there are photos of his wife in a hospital bed, and pictures of a funeral – not sure if the two incidents are related.  There is also a poignant picture of friends posing in an orchard – one man is in a Soviet army uniform, a young, dour woman has perched his army hat on her head.  The album comes full circle by finishing with more confirmation photos – this time a young man with a Beatles haircut and armfuls of flowers.  Wing-nut, face now wrinkled, without his wife at his side, poses next to the boy in a group shot.

In historical terms, without any kind of identification of places, people or events, the album has no value.  I see enough significant photos in my line of work, help to interpret them, preserve them, publish then in exhibitions.  The pictures in this mystery album are typical family photos of any other people who lived in Latvia at that time – without the personal information. 

But the romantic side of me cannot get the album out of my system.  All of those family pictures in sequence –the small joys of belonging to a church community, of having children, your wedding day, sitting in the garden, and putting on your best clothes to go to the photographer.  All of those eyes, and smiles, and lives caught in black and white, carefully sorted and stored in an album. 

Then again, maybe the family story isn’t as rosy as I imagine it. Perhaps Wing-nut worked for the Soviet regime and sent people to exile in Siberia?  Maybe he was a philandering fool, whose wife died of heartbreak early?  Or a less-dramatic version – maybe in his older days, Wing-nut turned to drinking and estranged his family, so that no one was there to collect the album later on? 

Whatever the story was – I have the album now. Stored in the bottom of my drawer.  And occasionally, once every couple of years, I take out the album and pore over the pictures – find faces, now familiar - admire the clothing, wonder about the people, their fates, their families.  And in a strange way, I feel that I know them, and that I have saved the memory of these people, who lived at one time,  in a regional town, somewhere in Eastern Europe.

3 Responses so far.

  1. Mook says:

    Here is a comment on this post sent to me via email from Fiona, because her computer would not let her post comments on the blog for some reason: ---- Mook, despite the push for personal information in museum collections, I now sometimes collect photos without the info, as the albums or individual prints tell a story too. Together they reveal the form of how people presented their family photos, reveal the trends in album design and composition of photos, the types of activities people captured on film, show the companies that were making and selling albums or photographic paper etc. While you can get this info from provenanced photos, you don't often get to keep whole albums as they usually stay with families. So for a sociological study of family albums, sometimes it is the ones with no info that float through op shops and auctions that we rely on so we can study the material object rather than viewing, copying and returning photos to families. So I don't think it is a problem - they are valuable in themselves, and you can't give this album up so it clearly has value to you. You have preserved it and perhaps you could publish some photos in the Cesis newspaper with a story to find the family?? xx

  2. If Latvian History teachers start to look at primary sources as a way of teaching history to kids, this album is exactly the kind of artifact they could have kids bring in/share/anlayse. This would allow Latvians to begin to examine the history of Latvia from not just a political context, but rather the social context that is so much more meaningful in a classroom setting. I also would have bought the album. I could even see using it in my history to teach the progression of a life during the 20th century - especially as my curriculum spans from post WWI all the way to modern times - the pictures tell you so much about life during those times... Imagine me asking, so let's see what Wingnut was doing during this time? How can we connect his life to the events we are learning.

  3. Mamma M says:

    What are wing-nut ears? I find your fascinations fascinating. :) I appreciate you getting in to stuff like this and sharing it, because then it is interesting to me- I'd walk by all the photo albums in an op-shop...wait, I walk by the op shops! ;) Keep writing. Love it.

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