"I cannot sing the old songs
Or dream those dreams again..."
-- Charlotte Barnard
Photographer unknown, 1912, from "Some Introductory Remarks on the History of Summer (1900-1919)"
One of the most surprising things about old photos is how alien they can look. Human beings haven’t changed in any basic way since deep in our prehistory, yet a photographed face from our own parents’ time can sometimes seem to stare at us across an immeasurable gulf of time. Unfamiliar formats & posing conventions, not to mention changed clothing & hair styles, public & private furnishings and of course technology – encourage this dislocation. But in fact these changes only signal a simple truth – that the whole universe changes utterly, irrevocably, molecule by molecule, second by second. There is no going back.
Photographer unknown, "The Portrait Gallery"
One way to connect with an old photograph, I’ve found, is to look at it for a long time. If a glimpse doesn’t yield familiarity, hang around a while. It’s like coming out of a hotel onto the busy street of a strange town. The 1st time you’re a stranger, but by the third or fourth you know what side of the street gets the afternoon sun, a good place to eat, where to buy a paper, find a late-night ATM & so on. It’s not that you’re any more fully there. It’s that now you can imagine yourself there.
Square America: “A gallery of vintage snapshots and vernacular photography,” from which the pictures above are taken, covers the first 75 years of the 20th century. “Not only do these photographs contain a wealth of primary source material on how life was lived, they also constitute a shadow history of photography…” says the collector/curator in a brief “about” section (unsigned, like most of the snapshots). As organized on the site, they’re also brilliant "outsider" art. My favorite sections are:
Some Introductory Remarks on the History of Summer (1900-1960)
The Portrait Gallery
And here are a couple of superb collections by two friends of mine. Highly recommended.
Andrew Long is a photographer and writer who edits The Daily Flog. His well-chosen collection of vintage photos is here.
Nancy Fulton has collected & written movingly about pictures of her family here.