Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How Close the History

Piazza del Plebiscito, 1996

When you’re young, everything’s new and current. It’s happening in real time. What happened before you is the stuff of the black-and-white pictures in history books.

As you get older, what happened in real time when you were a kid is now the stuff of history that’s written about in your children’s history books, about as personal to them as, say, the Battle of Agincourt was to you.

I was born during the Korean Conflict and came of age during the Vietnam War. My parents were born just after WWI and came of age during the Great Depression. Their parents were born in the late 1800s. Their grandparents fought in the Civil War.

Not all that many links away, when you think of it.

A relative living in Florida who’s doing genealogical research on my wife’s family (the Henleys) recently asked me to go to a cemetery here in Virginia and photograph the headstone of one of the Henley ancestors, a woman who confounds genealogical researchers because her name is somewhat unusual and frequently misspelled.

I went to Elmwood Cemetery yesterday and photographed the Henley family lot. Buried there are: Merthena, the matriarch whose name is spelled three different ways in the space of a single cemetery index card; Merthena’s son Robert and his wife; their daughter and what appears to be a male cousin, both of whom died young during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1917 – 1919; Robert’s widowed sister and, strangely enough, a woman with no obvious Henley connections whose last name happens to be Bonney. (We’re everywhere, you know.)

Merthena was born in 1832. Her son Robert was born during the first year of the Civil War and died just a few months shy of witnessing VJ Day and the end of WWII. That’s quite a run in my book.

None of this, by the way, has anything directly to do with either the picture above or the one below. The only link is their association with “times past.” Both of these images are based on photographs originally taken in Naples, Italy, on a cold and rainy late December day in 1996. My wife and daughter and I were on a bus tour from Rome to Pompeii that included a “drive-by” pass through Naples. The pictures weren’t noteworthy. I hung on to them, though, for sentimental reasons. Some years later, when I’d started working with digital imagery, I found I could scan the original prints and do something interesting with them.

Castel dell’Ovo, 1996

In my case, the “interesting” thing was to try to wipe them clear of modern references and re-present them, as it were, in a modified sepia tone that gives them more of a historic appearance.

[As I write about this, I realize that the whole idea of sepia toning is probably something our children will only know about if they decide to go to art school and study “historic methods.”]

Although I suspect anyone who uses Photoshop goes through a brief period of using and abusing every one of its tricks and gimmicks, I try to stay clear of them. If you look at a lot of Photoshopped images, the tricks and gimmicks become pretty obvious and draw more attention to themselves than to what you’re trying to say with the photograph.

But I don’t feel guilty about what I did with these photographs of Naples. Heck, I once went to a fancy New York art gallery to see an exhibit of photographs famous mostly because they were printed using ink made from blueberries or cranberries or something else equally unsuspecting berry. Against that context, I think I can be forgiven for a little aging.

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