I find an old envelope containing several old photograph negatives. On the outside of the envelope is written “Very Old Films (My Father’s time) and the only Photo’s that I am left with !!” The handwriting, I am fairly certain, is my grandfather’s. The negatives are unlike the modern ones I am used to dealing with. These are larger, more square in shape and each of a single image. I hold them up to the light and see very shadowy images of people but nothing clear enough to make out. I’m in the middle of scanning a pile of letters and old photos so I scan in the negatives and then find the function that allows you to reverse an image – from negative to positive or vice versa. In a moment I have transformed some fragile pieces of celluloid into images of people – the first time these images have actually been seen in a very long time. It is a strange feeling. I wonder how it was my grandfather had the negatives but not the photos themselves. And of course I look at these people before me and wonder who they are.
There is an image of older man with a bushy grey beard sitting at a dining table; beside him is a young girl, probably in her teens. The table is covered with plates and glasses and bottles – the photo was clearly taken midway through a meal. I can almost read the label on one of the bottles but not quite. I can almost see what they have had for dinner. So on a particular day, over a hundred years ago, my great grandfather sat down with his family for a meal and someone decided to take a photo. And over a hundred years later I am looking at that image on a computer screen, in a large house in Edinburgh, probably not that different from the house in which my distant family sits, having their dinner. I feel completely drawn into this world of image and memory.
There is a series of photos of family members, all taken in front of a rather imposing sideboard, on which sits a vase containing some tall spiky leaves. I’m not sure if these photos have all been posed for comic effect or if it was just by chance but in each photo the spiky leaves almost seem to be sprouting out of the subject’s head. There is a young boy, whose shoulders only reach the top of the side board as he stands in front of it. There is a young girl with a rather dreamy expression on her face, with lovely brown hair. Another shows a middle aged woman, also seated, this time photographed from a slightly different angle but still with the sprouting head. Another photo shows a baby sitting propped up in a leather arm chair. I cannot make out the features of the child’s face but would guess that they might be about one year old, maybe a little older.
Perhaps my favourite photo from this collection of “very old films” is the image of a young girl standing against a shingled roof-line, as though she has just climbed out of an attic window and someone has decided to take her photo. Maybe this was her favourite place to go to escape from her brothers and sisters. Maybe she liked to go out onto the roof to look across the chimneys and rooves of the New Town and up to the sky and think her thoughts. She looks like a thoughtful girl. And although the image is partly obscured by marks and stains on the fragile negative, she seems very present in the photograph. She reminds me of other photos of the girls in my family, often with this same intense look. My mother, her sisters, my cousins, me, and my own daughters. I feel a great fondness for this girl who was more than likely one of my great aunts.
By looking at a list of birth dates that my grandfather wrote on a piece of paper I can begin to work out who is probably who. I am fairly certain that the baby in the leather armchair is my grandfather Richard who was born in 1903. The bigger boy in front of the sideboard is probably his brother James (‘Uncle Jim’) born in 1896. The girl on the roof could be Jane (born 1891) or Margaret (born 1890) – the age seems about right if I work backwards from the baby Richard in the chair. The older girl at the dinner table, and maybe also in front of the sideboard, is probably Clara (born 1888), later known as ‘Aunty Cissie’ – another story to tell. But I am just making partly informed guesses based on a scrap of paper with some names and dates and a series of not very clear images. I think I have given them their names but I may have it completely wrong. It could be a whole different story, but I feel like I am close. As I gaze at these images that only exist as light on a computer screen, I feel very strongly connected to them and wonder if there is such a thing as blood memory. I feel as though I am looking at captured moments of time in the lives of people whose blood I share, if only in part. People whose lives have long since run their course. How strange that I should be sitting here, over a hundred years after the photos were taken, several years after I first ‘discovered’ these images in an envelope in the body box, now on the other side of the world, and still feeling such intense fascination and wonder at this art of light and memory.