Identity

February 14, 2017

"Aunt Mildred's Favorite Chair" by Eric Rennie

The image above is one of ten selected for a juried competition entitled Identity at the Midwest Center for Photography in Wichita, KS.  The exhbibition runs from February 24, 2017 to March 10, 2017.  The photo is part of a series taken at a small New England dairy farm that once belonged to my grandfather and that remained in my family for more than a century.  The farm was in many ways like on old photograph, seemingly frozen in place as the world moved on.  Stepping through the door of the little farmhouse that my Aunt Mildred continued to occupy until very recently was like stepping back in time.  The interior looked much as it did when I first laid eyes on it over 50 years earlier and probably much as it did when my father grew up there during the Depression.  It wasn't just the antique furniture or the floral-patterned wallpaper or the lace curtains. The house itself had never really been remodeled, only added onto.  My grandfather had bought the place in 1910, and the oldest parts of the house dated from 1840.  A bathroom had been attached to the back of the house when indoor plumbing came along, then a kitchen with running water. Electricity had been installed, but there were no built-in light fixtures. Some of the rooms upstairs were illuminated by naked bulbs dangling from the ceiling. Clothes were hung in armoires because there were no closets. There were steam radiators rather than heating ducts, and a single radiator in the upstairs hall barely kept the bedrooms from freezing in the winter.

Taking pictures in the farmhouse, I often found myself photographing other photographs.  Almost every flat surface in the front parlor, sitting room and bedrooms was occupied by family photographs, dozens and dozens of them. Aunt Mildred pointed with pride to a black-and-white portrait of her father, a Rhode Island state senator, from the turn of the last century. There were numerous portraits from the same period or older: various ancestors, stiff and unsmiling, in ornate oval frames. There were many later portraits and snapshots -- black and white or color according to their vintage -- of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. There were wedding pictures and group shots of relatives in their Sunday finery. 

In the mid-19th century, when photography was still a novelty, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote prescient essays about its impact on civilization. Until then, portraiture was a costly adornment rarely seen outside a narrow circle of aristocrats or wealthy burghers.  Mohammad, Charlemagne, Joan of Arc and Christopher Columbus all passed into history without leaving a likeness behind.  For Holmes, photography had enabled even the common man to achieve a kind of immortality.  "It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying, as they did of old," he wrote.  "They remain with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables; they rest upon our bosoms; nay, if we will, we may wear their portraits, like signet-rings, upon our fingers.  How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!"  By the time I began taking pictures of the farm, the young farmer and his wife who bought the place more than a century ago, they and their descendants after them, were long gone. Of all those who ever lived there, the only one who remained was Aunt Mildred, and now she, too, is gone.  They are only perishable memories and pictures, including photographs of photographs, bearing mute testimony to all those who had gone before.