December 10, 2011
The Story of a Photograph That Changed Over Time
I used to say by the time one sees an artist’s work the creative process has long ended. What the viewer sees are the vestiges of that process—the skeletal remains. Yes, there is beauty, horror, and all sorts of emotions that can be reflected in the work. But the joy of creating or of telling a story has passed and the artist is on to his next idea. Yet, as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that sometimes the story continues. And, if an artist is lucky years later he is reunited with the piece on a completely different level.
The first time that happened to me was in November 2009 on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In anticipation of that momentous event I went searching my photo archives for a photograph I’d taken at the Wall in 1974. It was a family reunion with the Wall in between. In the decades since I snapped that picture and experienced that Cold War divide in such a personal way, the details of just where I took that photo were fuzzy. I remembered the event and I remembered what occurred during that visit but I couldn’t quite remember where I took that picture. I thought it was at Checkpoint Charlie and posted the image on Flickr as such. But immediately, people from around the world began to question the location. A popup community looked for visual documentation that would place the image. And as we searched historical photographs my memory slowly began to come back. The picture was actually taken one block east of the checkpoint at Charlottenstrasse. Through crowdsourcing by a group of strangers another chapter was added to the photograph (be sure to read the comments under the Flickr photograph). Images showing the same corner now showed the transformation of a united Berlin in those intervening years. The story, written as comments and questions from strangers, added a new context to the image.
Last week this happened to me again. I got a voicemail at work from a stranger. She wanted to know if I was the Jeff Gates who had taken a photograph of a storefront in Baltimore in the mid 1980s. I returned her call.
“I had a hard time tracking you down,” she said. “And I hope you don’t think I’m stalking you. But did you take a photograph of a store called Nomenclatures?” I certainly had but that was decades ago. It had been a junk store and its name seemed out of character with its wares and its working class neighborhood. I was intrigued by that discrepancy and took the photograph. But, once again, my memory of the details surrounding the image was fuzzy.
“My father owned that store,” she said. He died a few years ago but last week I was cleaning out some of his things and found a news clipping from the Baltimore Sun with your image in a drawer.”
At the time I was doing a series of photographs with stories on them. Sometimes they were a paragraph; sometimes they were just a sentence; and sometimes there was a text within the image. I had been intrigued by how words could add to our interpretation and change the context of photographs. As she spoke I tried to remember the story I’d put to that image. When I got home I went back to my archives to look.
About a year after taking the initial photograph I had passed the store again and saw it was going out of business. So I took a final photograph. Soon the store and its hand-stenciled sign would no longer exist. I used both the earlier and the later pictures to make a triptych about the value of a photograph over time. Since the place would soon no longer be there the monetary value of my photograph, I thought, should increase. The three photographs indicated each’s place in time. And over time the market value of the image increased. The pure artist in me was making commentary on the entirely different world of the art market.
The passage of time is the very thing that makes the most mundane historical images more valuable, on a personal as well as a market level. These images represent people, places, and events that no longer are there. And, as such, their meaning changes. They may originally have been made to document a family event or home but to us in the future, it becomes a slice of time no longer available to us. People are gone and places have been demolished. As we hold these artifacts of memory dear to us their value increase. Because the period in which these images is long gone and we can’t take any more pictures of these scenes, the market treats them as valuable commodities. I was commenting on monetary value but the photo I had taken was a reminder to this woman of her father and his life. I created a digital version of the triptych and sent it to her.
She wrote back her thanks but, she told me, the text on these images wasn’t the same as the one in the newspaper. “When you took the newspaper image my brother was working at the store and came out to see what you were doing. The text on the photograph was a conversation between both of you. ‘Where’d you get the name?’ you had asked. My brother replied ‘Oh that. My sister named it. She went to college.’”
“I was the sister who went to college,” she continued. “My boyfriend and I painted that sign. My father hated my boyfriend and, of course, I married him. We later got divorced but it was the two of us who named the store and made the sign.” She sent me a copy of the newspaper article and it all came back to me. I had actually done an initial version of this piece with the dialogue between her brother and me. But I had only shown this early rendition one time and that article in her her father’s drawer was for the show it had been in.
Once again, a stranger had added a new chapter to my work. The image takes on greater meaning to me now. Yes, in part because it was part of my history. But more importantly, I now knew it was someone else’s history too. I remade the digital image with the original text and sent it to her.
She wrote back thanking me and added “We talked about you at Thanksgiving.” My ears were burning. All of this because of a store she named and the photograph I took of it. Twenty-five years later I wanted to know the rest of her story.