The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Joy Over Grief
Several weeks ago a brown box full of photographs arrived at “The Smithsonian.” Now being that “The Smithsonian” is actually made up of many museums and research centers, this brown box was circulated through several offices before I finally got the call to see if it was something that I wanted. Usually the Smithsonian would rather not receive unsolicited donations. Though, sometimes it works out well. After all, James Smithson’s donation was an unsolicited gift! (So unless you are leaving a vast amount of money, I recommend you contact one of the museums first.)
I got a whiff of the box. Hmmm. Slightly moldy smell. I opened the box to find that the photographs were just dumped in and sliding around over each other. There was broken glass in the bottom. This wasn’t going too well. But then, I started pulling out the snapshots. And there is was. A snapshot of a woman at a funeral. Okay, so that’s not a Hope Diamond or pair of Ruby Slippers, but for me it was a gem. You see we humans don’t tend to take snapshot during moments of crisis, unless you are a photojournalist perhaps. But then it usually isn’t your crisis.
As a photo curator interested in snapshots and vernacular photography (the personal use of photography), I’m on the look-out for those photographs that fall outside of the typical snapshot. Since the introduction and wide spread use of inexpensive photography in 1900 by Kodak’s Brownie, snapshots have fallen into fairly typical categories: milestones (birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc), religious milestones like confirmations, bar mitvahs and bat mitzvahs, holidays, travel, and general good times. Good times is the key. As we use photography to document our lives, we tend only to capture the happy and positive aspects. Understandably, in the midst of our own crisis, rarely do we pick up a camera and think “I must document this domestic violence, tragic accident, dying person,” or the like. Less dramatic though, we tend not to photograph dirty dishes stacked in the sink, crying children and other such images that may have a negative connotation to future viewers.
So when I saw this slightly faded photograph printed in September 1956 of a woman with a tissue or wadded up handkerchief in her hand, the expression of the woman being comforted and the one comforting, and the funeral canopy, it made me happy. “Ahh,” I sighed. Someone in rural South Carolina captured the challenges we face in life. I can’t know the intention of the photographer, and whether or not, he or she felt this was crisis. Perhaps, someone said, “Bring your camera and photograph the funeral,” and then deviated from the decorum of photographing the coffin and the flowers, but not the grieving. There are other photographs of this funeral. But not of the tears.
So when putting your scrapbooks and albums together, as you construct these histories of your life, think about all its ups and downs, and how you can share a fuller life story.
And if you want to send in an unsolicited donation, make that check out to the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History!
View photographs from the Photographic History Collection.