For the first time in years, I've been spending some time in antique shops and second-hand stores — I just bought my first house, you see, and it needs stuff. Although I hadn't even noticed it before, I'm now startled and saddened to see that the shops always have family photos for sale.
There are formal portraits of men in suits, group photos of people gathered around a bride and her groom, teenagers in living rooms holding brass wind instruments. Occasionally, in the back room of an antique shop, I'll find a great groaning mass of photos, with landslides of first communions and summer days at the beach sloughing off its edges.
Naturally, I'm quite sensitive about it now, having dedicated myself to researching the lives of several obscure figures in the 1920's music scene in Minnesota. There are people whose lives I've labored over for hundreds of hours — I've lost sleep fearing that their lives ended in despair — without even having any idea of what the people looked like.
Every time I see another orphaned photo, I wonder if it's of Tom Gates, co-leader of a band with Frank Cloutier before Frank moved to the Victoria Cafe. Gates was 20 years Frank's senior, and had been the leader of a concert band in Mason City when Meredith Wilson — writer of The Music Man — was a boy there. I don't know what became of him, and I've never found a photo of him.
Maybe it's of Marguerite Lane, daughter of John J. Lane who ran the Coliseum and the Boulevards of Paris dance halls. When she saw her dad arrive, he used to flick the lights on and off so the band knew to switch from jazz to the old-fashioned dance music the boss preferred. I have no idea what she looked like.
Almost ten years ago, I read Martin Gilbert's A Complete History of World War One. A single passage sometimes comes back to me when I'm in an antique shop, confronted with an anonymous family photo. It relates an event from one of the earliest moments of the War, when nobody quite yet knew how to act or what they were supposed to be doing:
As Feuchtinger's regiment reached the Russian trenches, the Russians turned to flee. One of them, being closely chased, and apparently without his rifle, stopped all of a sudden, turned around, held out his right hand and put his left hand into his tunic pocket. As he did so, Feuchtinger plunged in his bayonet. "I see his blood redden his uniform, hear him moan and groan as he twists with the bayonet in his young body. I am seized with terror. I pull my blood-stained bayonet from the dead body. Wanting to fold his hands, I see in the left hand a crumpled photo of his wife and child."A photograph, like a good war story, allows us to imagine the facts we thought we'd been taught. It turns data points — the sequence events in a battle, for example, or the branches in a family tree — into real knowledge.
By offering up his photograph, the Russian soldier was offering the one thing he carried that most reminded himself that he was still a person. He wasn't so much asking Feuchtinger to look at his wife and child, he was saying look at me — look at ME. It was supposed to be his membership card to the human race.
I sometimes wonder where that very photo is today — is it bearing witness as it was made to do? Or has it rotted into the Russian soil? Or is it for sale in a Minneapolis antique shop? Somebody really ought to at least know.
Note: The photo was courtesy Square America, a defunct and brilliant exhibit of "vintage snapshots and vernacular photography." As they said in Down By Law, it is a sad and beautiful world ...