Four Generations, Omaha, NE, circa 1924
My grandfather sits on his father’s lap. To my great grandfather’s left sits his father. On the opposite side of my great, great grandfather, sits my great, great, great grandfather. Four generations of men from one family was a rarity in Omaha in 1924, and documenting their lineage, and having the preserved memory almost ninety years later, is even more rare.
This photograph was taken for a newspaper in Omaha shortly after my grandfather’s birth, and lives in an album as the only evidence of the existence of the three generations preceding my father’s father. My great grandfather would leave his wife and two young sons some time after it was taken and, years later, they would begin new lives, assume a new surname, and try to forget the man in the picture with the deep brown eyes that my grandfather, father, and brother all inherited.
“News photographs are very unary[…] In these images,
no punctum: a certain shock – the literal can traumatize – but
no disturbance; the photograph can “shout,” not wound,” (p. 41)
This photograph is a news photograph, and while its context and personal meaning makes it more special, I find that there is still a punctum, a prick, an almost eerily haunting aspect that holds me. The man in the middle, holding the baby, holds your gaze with his deep brown eyes that transcend the lack of pigment in the image. Barthes argues that a news photograph does not have the ability to “wound,” or to stick with a person long after seeing it. While I did not capture the photograph myself, it captures me through the unquestionably similar gazes of the four men.
“I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists
only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture,
one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’,” (p. 73)
Conversely, I acknowledge that this photograph holds special meaning to me, and perhaps only I can truly appreciate it. I know its meaning, and I can appreciate the innocence of the baby’s smile, knowing he will one day grow up with another father and another last name, defying the legacy this photograph is intended to represent. When considering it simply as a photograph, as opposed to an item in a newspaper, it may seem to be ordinary, or even mundane. Posed and unnatural, the men are dressed in what are surely not their best suits, but their only suits. But only I know that. Barthes discusses James Van der Zee’s photograph, mentioning that it “utters respectability, family life, conformism, Sunday best, an effort of social advancement,” that classifies my grandfather’s family portrait. (p. 43) Barthes discusses that this is unimportant to him, but instead the details grab his attention. Similar to the girl’s strapped pumps, the deep brown eyes, the awkwardness of my great grandfathers hands as he holds the baby, and his lopsided bowtie relay a discomfort, an unnaturalness to the entire situation: nice clothes, posed smiles, and perhaps fatherhood.
“[The photograph] commonly have the fate of paper (perishable),
but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still
mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of
the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages…
Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes; there is
nothing left to do but throw it away,” (p. 93)
Much like the photograph of my grandmother in Paris, I feel as though I am immortalizing this image by digitalizing it. While all four men are no longer living, there is a certain life that transcends time, age, and death through photography. While its color is surely faded, it exists as more than an object that allows, “nothing left to do but throw it away.” It is preserved as a relic, as a moment in time, outliving the story that taints its contextual meaning. Perhaps because it exists as the only photographic evidence I possess of the three eldest subjects, but Barthes’s claim that it exists essentially as trash not only disturbs me, but angers me, compelling me to scan this photograph, and allow it to move through the barriers of time.