Through my grandmother’s lens

Taken by my grandmother

I don’t usually post photographs that I didn’t take.  Let me make it very clear – this isn’t my picture. 

I do have a reason for posting it – this is part of a project that’s been nagging at me for a while.  I want to incorporate a set of her photographs into my work but I’m struggling with how I want to do that.  My work is usually just that – all mine – but this set of pictures has an emotional impact that I want to work with.

I never knew my grandmother.  I have a grandmother, but she is a stepgrandmother – if such a thing exists.  My mother’s mother died when she was 27 years old.  She wanted to be a journalist, and enjoyed taking photographs with what I think was a Kodak Brownie camera.

Her life was a difficult one.  Her father was abusive and her family was poor. I don’t know much about her because the family never discusses her, but I do know that her side of the family had a grandparent that ran a speakeasy during Prohibition and was a moonshiner.  When she met and married my grandfather, it must have seemed like a fairy tale come true.

They were married for about 8-10 years, I’m not sure exactly how long.  They had two children – my mother was 6 years old and her little brother was several years younger. 

She and my grandfather were in the middle of moving the small family from the town they both grew up in to another small town where he had taken a post as a pastor of a small church.  They weren’t rich and couldn’t afford to hire movers.  He drove one car, she drove the other, both heavily loaded with their belongings.  The kids were left with family while my grandparents took everything to the new house.    

He crossed the railroad tracks without incident.  She didn’t look, or there was no train signal on the country road, I don’t know for sure.  I do know that the train dragged the car for 20 yards or so before it could stop.   As far as I could tell from the newspaper clippings there were no criminal charges placed against the driver of the train – it’s simply listed as a tragic death. 

I lived the first 20 odd years of my life knowing nothing more about my grandmother than the fact that she died.  We didn’t know any of her family, and ours never discussed it.  A few years ago, someone gave my mother her mother’s album – a tattered, falling apart scrapbook of sorts filled with about 300 of her photographs, most of which are family shots. 

I spent months scanning in each photograph so that we would have a digital record of the small black and white prints.  Of those 300 photographs, there are about 40 that I’m intrigued by – they have no labels or notes.  This photograph was taken in New Orleans in the late 50s.

Every time I try to incorporate these photographs I run into several issues.  A lot of what I want to express about my relationship with my grandparents is either negative or hurtful to them – I can’t quite reconcile producing work that will hurt my family with my artistic viewpoint.   It’s one thing to put yourself out there, but it’s totally different to pull out the skeletons in the closet and hope no one cares too badly.

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