Photographs: The Power of Time and Place

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Photographs – those links to another time and to other places – play such an important role in our lives. I think of this often and was reminded again just a few days ago of just how sublime is their effect. We have just returned home from Santa Barbara after Saturday’s celebration of my mother-in-law’s 94th birthday. The party was held at her house, attended by numerous family members ranging from us senior citizens to tiny great grand-children. Although she is 94 years of age, Ruth lives alone in her home of more than fifty years with only minimal assistance. Devotion to her expanding family circle continues to be a defining characteristic of her life.

As is our custom when we visit, my wife and I stayed at the house another night before driving home. In the quietness of the morning-after, long after the other guests had departed, I lingered in the spare bedroom to contemplate the large photo gallery of Ruth’s extended family which completely covers two walls. Looking out from their various frames are the familiar faces of my wife, our two daughters, Linda’s three brothers, numerous grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren. The older of us are captured and preserved there depicting our persona over a time span representing several decades.

As I stood there noting and remembering, I became aware of the only sound in the house, the steady tick-tock, tick-tock of Ruth’s cuckoo-clock in the living room. The effect was not lost on me as I contemplated the miracle of photographs – those images which have the exclusive power to arrest the relentless passage of time. Such images have the unique ability to preserve, in our mind’s-eye, the way we were, and they serve to remind us of the good times and the important events in our lives. There seems to be something even more profound about photographs than merely capturing us at a given time in our lives; they capture us at a specific instant of our existence. I suppose my intrigue over this latter point has something to do with my interest in Einstein’s revelations about time and space in his theories of relativity; at any rate, I find that aspect of photography especially fascinating.

Photographs allow us to side-step that practical aspect of nature which implies that the arrow of time is irreversible for us. While we cannot literally turn back the clock, we can physically journey back to places recalled. In this day and age of rapid change, we are lucky if the places of our distant past are recognizable today. In 2004, when Linda and I revisited many of my boyhood places in the Chicago of the 1940s, I was thrilled to find our old apartment building looking exactly as it does in the old family photographs. Likewise with my grandparent’s little brick house in the west suburbs of Chicago. Virtually nothing had changed in 66 years! The cement steps with their sculpted metal handrails leading to the front door of the house were still there, the very steps on which my mother was photographed in her wedding dress in 1939. The photograph reproduced at the beginning of this post shows me with my parents, grandparents, and Uncle Ed standing there in 1943. Seeing these places that I remember as a young boy after so many decades was a thrill for me, something I had always wanted to do.

I am thankful for the gift of photography which scientific knowledge and technology have bestowed upon us. Although I understand the technical underpinnings, photography will always seem to me a form of magic which allows us access to the mystery of time and place.

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