A Chest Full of Photographs — On the Aesthetics of Old Photos

Writer Allyson White's Great Uncle Bill, in uniform, next to his girlfriend in Japan. A child stands behind them. White came across of box of candid familial photos and has taken to drawing them. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)

A few weeks after my Great-Uncle Bill died, my mom came home from the sweltering backwoods mountains of Arkansas with an old trunk. It was a stingy yellow sort of color, strapped shut with leather buckles that crumbled as we worked to undo them, but inside were piles and piles of almost perfectly preserved photographs.

My uncle had a particular way of taking pictures. It was a solemn sort of curiosity, a style that had always peaked my interest and roused my artistic proclivities.

Years earlier, I’d collected the old photographs of my Papa Willie, Uncle Bill’s brother, who had a far more humorous style of photography that was still just as candid.


Papa Willie showing off his fashionable, new double bowtie. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White)

I wasn’t sure what drew me to these pictures so much. One would assume it was the genealogical connection, but I don’t think it was.

The thing about old photographs is that they connect you to the past. Everyone knows the saying, “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” but with old photographs, we don’t know what those words were.


My great-grandpa and my mom’s cousin, posing, butcher a deer. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)


In a way, it is the mystery that has always ensnared me. I look at a picture and wonder how it came to be, who these people in the photograph were. Why did the photographer choose to preserve that particular moment? What did it mean?


Photo taken by Papa Willie with note on the back saying that “this guy” (referring the man with the arrow pointed at him) was high and drunk at the time of this photo. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)


I could go on with the questions because so many images raise so many different questions.

For instance, one of Papa Willie’s old army pictures is of two men, one sitting and the other lying with his head in the other’s lap. The image is from the 1950’s. The men are smiling, and I wonder what thoughts were shared between them and what led to this moment being immortalized by my grandfather and sent home to his family without his usual note written on the back.


Two unknown men in “A” Battery stationed in Germany in the 1950’s are in this photo taken by my Papa Willie. One has his head in the lap of the other. Both look at each other. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)


These photographs have traveled so far. Many of the photographs come from my Uncle Bill’s many years in Japan or Papa Willie’s time in Germany. There are pictures of the Arkansas of their childhood. Places and situations that seem so unusual and intriguing to the modern eye.


My great-grandpa showing his pet squirrel to a child. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White)


It is interesting, in part, because I don’t always know what I am looking at. But the image becomes even more intriguing when I have a part of the history.


Portrait photograph of my Uncle Bill. (Photo Courtesy of Allyson White.)
Portrait photograph of my Uncle Bill’s girlfriend in Japan, taken by Bill. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)















In Japan, my Uncle Bill found his first love. She lived there, a native of the nation, and over the years a forbidden romance bloomed. I know only that he’d wanted to marry her, but he returned home after his years in the military without her. In that old trunk were many images of her and a few of what might have been her family.


Children in displaced persons camp. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White)


Other images from my grandpa include captions that really bring the images to life. Others depict snapshots of a time and way of living that no longer exists, like the children from the displaced persons camp in Germany whom my grandpa took pictures of as they smiled at him from behind a chain-link fence. Or workers laying a street by hand, brick by brick. Or farmers in their shawls and trousers, heaping hay upon a horse-drawn wagon.


Men in Germany pouring the asphalt for a hand-lain brick road. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)


So, in a way, these images do connect me to the past, but not in the hereditary sense. It makes true to me that people have always been people, and that proves the universality of our human nature.


Drawing of a photograph taken by my Papa Willie of two unknown men. (Drawing by Allyson White.)
Drawing of a photograph taken by my Great Uncle Bill of his girlfriend while stationed in Japan. (Drawing by Allyson White.)











So, I draw them, as if it will somehow make me closer to them or reveal some hidden secret that lies in the most minute detail of the image. Somehow, it makes those in photographs more present, a way of breathing new life into these people who are probably all dead. Somehow, these photographs give them a voice. They are like something out of Shakespeare’s famous 18th sonnet when he said:


So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”


A note by Papa Willie on the back of this photo says that the man pictured was dishonorably discharged after he got drunk one night and shot himself in the foot. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)
Papa Willie flipping off his own battery, with his own caption below, “Here’s to ‘A’ Battery”. (Photo courtesy of Allyson White.)
About Allyson White 8 Articles
Allyson White is a junior from New Buffalo, Michigan. She is double majoring in Psychology and English and minoring in Anthropology. She is a major history buff and loves the humanities, literature (1500's-1800's literature, especially), and environmental science. She spends the greater portion of her time drawing/painting or working on her vegetable garden.

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