A family seated at a table for a 1969 holiday dinner. Grandparents on left, mother standing at the end of the table, teenage daughters on the right.

The Context of Our Photographs

In June 2017, I heard Enrique Martinez Celaya interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being; they discussed “The Whisper of the Order of Things.”  He is a painter who trained as a physicist.  The 50-minute interview addressed many topics, but I was most intrigued by his comments on photography.

Krista Tippett asked him about a comment he made previously:  “Photographs whisper that to look at them is to lose or overhear something.”  She then invited him to elaborate on how much more is going on in pictures than what we attribute now.

He responded, “…when people look at, say, a portrait of somebody, we always think that what we’re saying is, ‘That person is no longer.’ But in fact, it’s the other way. It’s us that do not exist for that photograph.”

His last statement was meaningful to me, because I remember having a similar thought about a family photo from the 1969 holiday season.  I was not born until a year later, December 1970.  My sisters are 15 and 18 years older than I am, and my mother always said that I was supposed to appear “about 10 years earlier.” When I first saw this photo of my grandparents, mother, and older sisters (my father was the photographer), I remember thinking:  “They had no idea that one year later, a baby would be in their lives.”  In this photo, I see a family settled into a routine with two teenage daughters – a routine that is going to be disrupted forever when a baby is unexpectedly conceived a few months later, causing them to move from this house into a larger one in time for my arrival.

Enrique Martinez Celaya also commented:  “And like many other things, by taking so many photographs, by having them in our phones, we don’t look at them carefully enough.”  This resonated with me, as I am always surprised by what memories the furniture, dishes, knickknacks, and other background items conjure for me.  Everything in a photograph enhances my memories.  From this photograph, I remember my mother’s green outfit, the tablecloth, rug, chairs, ornament hanging over the table, holiday candle behind her on her left, casserole dish, and glassware (she was a child of the Depression and used things for a long time).

A family seated at a table for a 1969 holiday dinner. Grandparents on left, mother standing at the end of the table, teenage daughters on the right.

Photographer: John B. Campbell. The Campbell family enjoying a 1969 holiday dinner with their Zimmerman grandparents.

In our digital world, while selecting images to keep (or crop), we don’t always consider the entire photograph.  When selecting photos for your own memories, consider the context of the whole photograph, not just what is most important to you in this moment.  Images of people and locations are important, but the peripheral items may be significant to your memories in future years.


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