Saturday, July 9, 2011

5 photos from my father

My father's favorite object was his Kodak Brownie box camera and  he took some amazingly lovely and straightforward photos with it. As a child, I'd spend hours pouring over our family album, peering into the faces and trying to figure out who these people really were, remembering the reality that the photos never showed but hinted at - who had just gotten yelled at for not standing still, for being silly, or cracking a joke. Over the last several years, I've begun to create my own collection by re-photographing the family albums. The advantage is that I have high resolution digital images that I can clean up in Photoshop without the expense and the "here's-hoping-the-photo-guy-knows-his-stuff" gamble. Here are five of my favorites:

This is probably Easter, 1954, because the girls all have new purses and the matching dress thing was common on holidays. The poufy sleeves tell me that my grandmother probably made them (she was big on poufy - I can still feel that elastic chafing my skin every time I look at them). The composition is great - I love the way they form a triangle against the rectangle of the house across the street and the distant branches pull the eye back to that poor excuse for a tree, connecting with Kathy's shadow.

The pool in the alley is an obvious favorite. I must have been two or three years old at the time and am not in the pool - the person on the far right is a neighbor, Judy Cornachuck. Stephen is threatening to sock Kathy and the look of anger on his face and shear terror on hers is a classic moment, the sort of thing I hope to capture in my drive-by photos of strangers, but rarely do. My grandparents owned the apartment building and these afternoons in the pool in the alley between the apartment buildings were always done with the hope that they wouldn't stop by and see us wasting their water.

This one of my mother, posing in front of the apartment building, also has that sense of frozen chaos - Mary, trying to look serene and calm while all hell breaks loose behind her, an apt metaphor for her life. I'm the one trying to stick my foot in the picture, Kathy, my sister is putting on her first communion veil, and a couple of neighborhood kids are hanging out on the steps. There was always someone hanging out on the steps - there must have been fifty kids that lived on that small city block. Like the last photo, my father has used a background element to split the composition in half.

This photo is a little closer to my mothers' reality - she's hanging clothes in the backyard while one of us draws in the dirt. We lived about a mile from Lake Erie in an area that I now know was at one time the bottom of the lake, so the soil was actually silt and sand and nothing would grow in it. From time to time, my grandfather would try to grow grass, but it never took. We made small paper people and played in it with them and our tin cars like it was the Nevada desert, fantasizing it was us driving through the sparse desert scrub and pines. We scraped Popsicle sticks over the surface to build elaborate roads and scratched lines for the layout of the houses. It was a great place to be a kid, in part, because I was too young to understand how violent and dangerous the neighborhood was getting. When I was 9, my 7 year old cousin David (he was technically not a cousin, but the son of my mother’s comare, which in her vernacular, meant "best friend") was held up a few blocks from our apartment for his paper route money. When he refused to give it up, the other kids tied him to a pole in the playground, beat him with his bicycle chain, and stabbed him. He lives in Hawaii, now.

I've always loved this one, but it meant more to me once I became a mother. This is the face my mother wore most of the time, especially after she started working. There are precious few pictures of her laughing or smiling. Five kids in eight years, the first arriving 9 months, almost to the day, of her wedding. The triangles, again, with the shadows on the bricks almost as severe as the ones across her face, yet, somehow, my brother and I appear light and soft. The shadow on the far right appears as if it could fall on her and the shadows to the left on the window and building reinforce the sense of pressure and foreboding.

The apartment was at 1775 Eddy Road, the 3rd apartment building down from Euclid Avenue, 2 blocks west of Superior Avenue. We moved in April of 1964. My grandparents sold the building in 1965. Much of the neighborhood burned in the riots of 1966.

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