Photography as a great social leveler

To be without a history is like being forgotten. My grandfather did not know the maiden names of either of his grandmothers. I thought that to be forgotten must be the worst fate of all.        – Donald Hall

For centuries the rich preserved their past in paintings and sculpture. The kin of the wealthy and powerful were all around them; they were remembered. The poor, however, had no recorded history, and their ancestors were soon lost to memory. Photography changed that. Now the poor had their grandparents and great-greats on paper and plastic at a moment’s notice. Photography helped narrow the cultural gap between rich and poor.

But it’s not all to the good. Where our memories used to be discovered in narrative, diaries and letters, now they are found in pictures and sounds. Our experiences are preserved in the click of the shutter. Family histories are found in color photos in plastic folders or digital catalogues where everyone smiles at a graduation, a wedding, a birthday or anniversary. The same smiles are repeated over and over again on subjects who grow taller, fatter, older — but otherwise seem to stay the same. Say some.

Say I, maybe so, maybe not. Perhaps the critics never read certain New England diaries where the past is encapsulated in short simple declarations: “I baked an apple pie.” “We went to town.” “Uncle Henry died this afternoon.” And introducing every day, a note about the weather: “it rained,” “it snowed,” “it was cold,” “it was hot.”

Of course, there are superior diarists. And there are superior photographers who snap more than families posing—who shoot the garden, the sunset, parents dancing cheek-to-cheek, children making mud pies—photographers around whose photographs there is an aura of memory with all the subtlety and complexity of a letter or passage from the best journal-keeper.

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