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Shadow Race

May 21, 2012

Shadow Race

Every time I’ve raced my shadow

When the sun was at my back,

It always ran ahead of me,

Always got the best of me.

But every time I’ve raced my shadow

When my face was toward the sun,

I won.

–Shel Silverstein

A Light in the Attic

A few years ago, I decided to digitize my family’s old photos.  Photos are precious links to the past and to a host of memories, almost always good since people rarely wasted film (or the money to develop it) on the family’s hard times.  My hope for the project was that I would be able to share these instants in time more easily with my siblings if anything ever happened to my parents, and also create a record of them lest something terrible ever happen to my parent’s home.  My mother was fortunate enough, when her two beloved aunts passed away each in their own time, to have inherited their family albums, as well as play the role of safe-keeper of our own family’s memory books.  Our recent past, otherwise said, is well documented, or at least better than some.

Scanning photos takes a fair amount of time, but is an activity which bears its own reward.  For one, it is a history lesson.  My brother was born in the black and white era of the brownie camera, the nifty little brown box which captured snipets of time for so many American families just like mine.  My sister and I came along in the next generation of photography, growing up with the 126 cameras upon which four-sided “flash bulbs” could be attached, greatly enhancing indoor shots.  As we neared the end of our primary school days, we as a family transitioned to the polaroid where the photos came out of the front of the apparatus and developed themselves right before your eyes, and later graduated to the 33-mm camera that had taken control of the photography market, becoming the standard for most digital cameras too.

Among all of these images, I stumbled across snapshots of our family trip to the Niagara Falls, ones when we visited an aunt in Connecticut and others in Florida.  There were pictures of the birthday cakes that Grammy used to decorate for us each year.  (My mother insisted that just because my sister and I were twins didn’t mean that we had to “share” a cake—Grammy made one for each of us, in separate themes).  As my father added on to the garage, or we bought a new truck, Mom was there to snap a picture of it, her own chronological paper keepsake.

After my mother’s passing, I dug a bit deeper in to the older albums she had tucked away at the bottom of the pile.  In the older black and white albums I discovered, ones which I don’t recall ever having seen, my mother’s later childhood is reborn.  In some of the neatly arrayed images, displayed on black paper with little paper holders at each corner, my then teenaged mother sits astride her white horse Snowball.  She rode snowball in the Olde Home Day parade that year before she graduated high school.  Amid crowds of cheering people, she and friend Wendy, also a lover of horses, proudly displayed their equine friends to the rest of the town.  Since there is photographic evidence of the event, it can be assumed that Grammy and Grampy were there on the sidelines cheering the girls on in their saddles.

I have long held a special place in my heart for black and white photography.  There are a range of emotions which display themselves richly when you take away some of the “color” noise of today’s clichés.  Moreover, when I was in the seventh grade, I learned about photography and the art of darkroom printing and more from my science teacher, Derwin Emerson.  He was a wonderful teacher who allowed me for the first time to see that my personal gifts and talents were not only valuable and exploitable, but worthy of dreams—dreams which I should be following.  Mr. Emerson repeated often that in reality, the images caught on film were just shadows etched in to silver in that instant when the light hit it.  Just fancy little shadows.

I, along with one of the girls in the class ahead of mine, worked many afternoons after classes had let out to take pictures of the school’s events for the yearbooks we eventually produced.  When it was a sporting event, I would focus the camera and set the aperture settings on a spot ahead of the athletes in anticipation of their arrival in the frame.  If the shot I was setting up were a portrait, I would try to get the light to conform to my needs, backlighting the staged area so that the person’s face and features were clear and bright.  I was, in essence, always trying to get under a shadow if the sun were too bright, or run ahead of one if the room were already too dark.  In most cases, in this shadow race, I was victorious.  On those occasions when I would lose, I could always get a rematch when I made my way in to the dark room, lightening or darkening an image as necessary with the chemical processes Mr. Emerson had taught me.

I celebrated my thirty-ninth birthday this spring.  Among the comments from friends and family, pointing out that there is a lot of white in my beard now, I was reminded that quite a lot of time had passed since Mr. Emerson introduced me to the darkroom laboratory at the newly constructed Central Middle School; that even more time had elapsed since Mom was caught on film carrying her large round Christmas box, containing the new jacket her Father had so proudly bought for her.

I was informed that I am almost officially a part of what is known as “Middle Age”—that period in your life when your memories seem to become more precious to you than the dreams you once chased.  On my birthday, I looked at a few more of these old snapshots sitting on my desk waiting to be scanned, and I saw family gatherings and other happy occasions when those people I cherished the most were still with us.  I closed my eyes to recollect those moments before and after the photographer intervened.  As I pondered, one by one the people started dimming.  They grew pale and then transparent, and finally they disappeared.  My Mom’s father disappeared first and then his sisters, next to their luxurious new cars, clad in long cloaks still wearing gloves and kerchiefs over their hair.  Slowly, the images themselves seem to have become less and less populated, until the only one left was that little boy I used to be, standing there all alone.  Not really knowing what has become of my cousins with whom we gathered on Christmas each year, or their children now on the cusp of adulthood, I realized that as I have gotten older, I have said goodbye to more of those closest to me than I have perhaps said hello to new faces and personalities.  That link, my connection, with a past was receding beyond memory as I contemplated the first half of my life.  I am grateful for those photos which help me remain in touch with those people who were there for me in my formative years.

I resolved at that moment to finish my photo project, and encourage you to do the same.  But don’t just scan those pictures to your computer’s hard drive where they will sit precariously, fearing some snafu which might wipe them out entirely.  Make a cd-rom of the images and share them with your local historical society so that a record of them can be kept there as well—help to cement further your own town’s past by preserving your personal and family story for the future.  Be the kind of person who runs toward the sun and wins the shadow race that is the family album.

*If you are from Corinth, Maine, as I once was, then contact the Corinth Historical Society, P.O. Box 541, Corinth, Maine  04427, or write to me and I will help facilitate your gift to them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mindy permalink
    May 21, 2012 11:45 am

    I like your description of middle age. Sounds so much more poetic without mentioning gravity. 🙂

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