My cousin Jim turned 60 a few years ago and I decided to repair and restore this old photo of him and his mother, my mother’s sister Helen. I didn’t recognize the house, but since Jim is two years older than me, I figured they had lived in another house or apartment before they moved to the house I knew on Desmond Street.
So I scanned the original print. I lightened some parts of the image and darkened other parts, and I repaired the crease across Helen’s face. I sharpened it as best I could, but there wasn’t much there to work with.
I had already made a new print, matted and framed it, and had it wrapped and ready to mail when I woke up one night with a start: that’s not Jimmy! The back of the original print had one lone notation on it: “six weeks”. Jim was born at the end of October, so at age six weeks it would be December. In Pennsylvania. These were the days before global warning and, trust me, no one takes a baby out in Pennsylvania in December clad only in a diaper.
Our mothers were part of a family of 13 children and as I look at photographs, particularly of the sisters, over the years, they tend to morph from one to another. In one photo Julia looks like Kate, then a few years later Kate looks like Josephine. Josephine sometimes looks like Pauline, sometimes like Julia, sometimes like Helen.
Aunt Pauline had two boys [and why do I assume it’s a boy? I’m not sure, but I swear it looks like a six-week old Jim to me!] both born in early summer, so this picture is most likely of Pauline with Jeff or Ricky.
I’m telling you this story to urge you to document the photographic prints you already have. Just like we learned in school: who? what? where? when? why?
And to tell an even better story, describe what’s happening at the edges—who is the shadowy photographer? What’s going on behind her? What happened just before or right after the photo was taken? Tell us when she got the dress and how much she loved it. Tell us when they moved into or out of this house.
There’s a universe of stories in just one photo. Get some of them down.