Why do we seek to connect past and present, and try to create meaning and order using old photographs, taken in times barely remembered, or even forgotten? These sorts of photography projects are internet favourites– Whether it’s the recreation of old family photographs, or the series of annual snapshots showing someone getting older, or this one- old people looking at their younger selves, the results can be poignant, or funny, or disturbing.
Although we didn’t have the photograph (below) with us on our recent trip back in time to England, my sister and I tried to recreate our memory of it. We came pretty close. The original picture was taken just before we immigrated to Canada. Grandma had written on the back: Our Darlings, January 13, 1958. It saddens me to think of the loss my grandparents must have felt then, not knowing when they would see their daughter and granddaughters again. Now, those little girls are our darlings. Even though the children and the moment in time no longer exist, it is difficult not to respond emotionally to photographs of our past selves. Why is that?
Is it because, unlike a memory, a photograph lets us see through the illusion of being a personality, unchanging and travelling through time?
We know when we look at the old photograph that we are looking at a different person – not just a younger version of ourself. I think there is a sort of grieving for the loss of that person. Perhaps the desire to recreate an old photograph is the desire to connect with our former selves, and our previous relationships.
Old photographs mean a lot to me. Sometimes I even look to old photographs for guidance from my old selves- or rather, how I remember my old selves. I know that some things I loved as a child bringing me happiness today. I have the photographs of me with my Brownie to confirm that. My old running photos and achievements inspire my current efforts. Innate personality traits survive even as the self continuously changes. When we seek guidance and inspiration from the past, we actually project our current self into the past, then select a memory, real or not, and bring back something to recreate in the moment.
A strange loop perhaps? I’m thinking of Douglas Hofstadter’s philosophy book I Am a Strange Loop. I read it a few years ago. Sometimes when I consider other philosophies (Zen Buddhism and Stoicism comfort me the most these days.) I’m reminded of it. Hofstadter has some pretty wild and fascinating ideas about how personality is created and how it can exist beyond the person, in other people, before and after we die.
But now I’m in danger of drifting off onto other philosophical tangents so I better quit right now.
By the way, this thinking about identity caused me to revisit my About page. I realized that it had been focussed (no pun intended) on my five-year old self, my photographic inspiration. It’s time to move on. I’ve taken down the old photographs and updated the blurb about myself with current information. But it remains a work in progress.