Looking at The Past

Written on 4th August 2015

I am holding a photograph. It’s a picture of my grandmother taken by me, aged around 12, in the home I grew up in. She’s looking directly at the camera, through the lens, and at a past me. There is something about looking at this photograph that affects me greatly though it isn’t looking back at an image of my much missed grandmother who died about five years after this picture was taken.

She is wearing a green Nike T-shirt and a spotty cardigan, both items that I recall precisely with the aid of the photograph, and three necklaces which my mother now keeps which I also remember well; but this isn’t what affects me either.

She is leaning towards me with a familiar expression, moments after bobbing for apples — with shaving foam (for some reason we used to do this at halloween) all over her face — about to curse me for photographing her. She is in this picture the age my mother is now, and they look very similar; but this resemblance created by the passing of time and observable through the photograph isn’t what affects me.

Above her left shoulder there is a mark where the flash has fired and bounced off of the over-varnished wooden paneling, which ran across the both sides of the kitchen. The light re-entering the camera is too bright and has over-exposed a small area of the film that received it.

As the light falls out from the epicentre of the flash, its corona, still over-exposed but leaving some detail, reveals the texture of the orange-red wood panels; I remember their glossy touch, broken up by rough areas that had gone un-sanded. This is what affects me.

That small detail takes me back into that room, and I can see it all. If I close my eyes I am able to wander freely around that old house, re-entering my childhood bedroom, looking through my stuff, seeing long dead relatives and smelling the smell of long dead dogs.

A photograph can do that, all that. But it is also guilty of tricking us.

When I have looked at this photograph or the many other just like it I keep in family albums, I have often longed for the ‘good old days’. We do this a lot, don’t we? Harking back to a time when things seemed simpler.

I have just picked up my camera, popped up the flash and taken a photograph of my partner, sitting on the sofa in our living room. It is a portrait orientation photograph, the left half of the frame is filled with the solid pebble colour of our walls, the right hand side shows the right hand half of my partner, looking at me, the photographer. She is wearing a nightdress that I know well. The flash reveals the patterned fabric of the sofa. In twenty years time I will pick up this photograph (or, more likely, look at it on a screen) my brain will pick up on the colour and pattern of the sofa, I will be able to feel it, sit on it, sink into it. I will smell the smell of air freshener we use to cover the smell of the kitchen that we haven’t yet cleaned up, hear the sound of the extractor in the bathroom and be able to walk upstairs and look in on our 3 year old daughter, as she was, then. Now.

I will yearn for it. I will yearn for what I have now, that which I am now experiencing, and to which I am utterly indifferent.

The day the photograph that I am holding was taken was probably like most days in 1993. I had probably just got home from school — which I disliked intensely — got changed and sat in the kitchen with nothing much else to do, grumpy for being coerced into participating in silly games. Then I would have retreated to my bedroom and played computer games for hours, until my Mum told me to switch them off. At the moment that I pointed the camera at my nan and the shutter was released, I would have been indifferent to everything surrounding me.

As I am now.

Our relationship with photographs is a strained one. We are disinterested at the moment of capture, and then tortured at some future time with a reminder of the things we have lost. Photographs remind us of the irrevocable passing of time. They torture us with evidence that once we were younger, healthier, happier and worse; that we didn’t care about it.



Lecturer at UCW, writing about politics, art, photography & culture.

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Jamie Dormer-Durling

Lecturer at UCW, writing about politics, art, photography & culture.