Meditation: On a Family Photograph

Photographer unknown, subjects unknown, location unknown [no date] gelatin silver print on gloss paper, 14.4 × 9.1 cm.

Except that the photograph didn’t portray family members. No one could tell me anything about who, or where or when they, had been photographed. I first came across the image as a pre-teen among a collection of photographs depicting my mother’s parents, forebears, siblings, and friends, which she kept in a shoebox at the bottom of her wardrobe.

As a child, I found not being able to know something unsettling. In the absence of an inscription on the reverse of the print — which might otherwise provide clues to or answers about the identity of the people portrayed, the context and time, and the reasons for the capture — the photograph was an enigma. Labels provide particularity and placement. In this instance, they might have explained why the image had been placed in the box. My mother’s generation didn’t ‘delete’ (that’s to say, either tear-up or throwaway) photographic prints with the same casualness that we observe when emptying our digital cameras of unwanted shots. Which explains why there were so many unfocused, underexposed, and poorly composed examples are preserved in my family’s albums. Each was precious and unique, because the negatives had been often either lost or disposed of. They were just a means to an end — part of the process of development. Only the print mattered, in the end.

I found the photograph’s image unsettling too. The composition contributes significantly to this sense of unease. The man is visible only by virtue of his head and arm extended. The portrait-bust of the seated nurse is seen from an unusually elevated viewpoint. Her head is slightly blurred. In all likelihood, she moved when laughing. The nurse appears to be engaged with someone or something outside the frame. Only the frowning baby standing in the cot at the centre of the photograph summons a degree of compositional conventionality. Although, I suspect, the child wasn’t the ostensible subject of the photograph.

The style of the nurse’s uniform indicates that the photograph was taken in the United Kingdom during the 1950s. Perhaps, the subjects are situated in the cordoned-off grounds of a children’s hospital; buggies or prams are parked again the rear fence. In other words, there were other children besides the one we see. Is the man either a father visiting his sick child or the nurse’s lover? I’ve always thought of him as a predatory intruder: unwelcome, dangerous, and embarrassing. The sunlight is strong enough to cast shadows.

The man is wearing sunglasses, which anonymises him further. He smiles sinisterly (after all, he’s positioned on the left — the inauspicious and dark side) at the camera operative, as though they and the nurse were in on a same joke. His head has partially disintegrated over time, due to the corrosion of the photographic emulsion. (As my younger son remarked, on seeing the photograph for the first time: ‘the image is still developing’.) Is he, now, vanishing; becoming a spectre of himself?

His arm and hand are positioned in the middle of the nurse’s back, like a ventriloquist manipulating their dummy. Thus, when I was young, he appeared to me to be controlling her; she laughed because he did, perhaps. Just as the baby is contained by the cot, so all three subjects are bound by a fence, made from branches and wooden struts.

Much later in life, I came across an engraving in an edition of Francis Quarles’s Emblems, Divine and Moral that reminded me of the photograph. A triangulation of figures arranged upon the grass within an enclosure. The biblical quotation beneath the engraving cast upon the photograph an air of pervasive evil and depravity.

Francis Quarles, ‘Book 1, Emblem 10’, Emblems, Divine and Moral (London: Chiswick Press, 1818).

Some thing isn’t right!, I’d say to myself (back then, when I was young). I sensed (without any evidence) that I was witnessing the record of some dark and furtive secret exchanged between adults, ‘Things like that went on’, my aunties would say (back then, when I was young).

I no longer seek answers. To discover what’s missing would evacuate the photograph’s mystery and punch, and close down narrative openness. Thereafter, its connotations would be rendered singular and specific, thereby reducing the image to a lifeless and an idiosyncratic curiosity at the bottom of the shoebox.

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