The Stories Behind the Photos

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For as long as I can remember I have had a camera close at hand. When I was a little girl, it was one of those rectangular 110 cameras on which I had to wind the film by hand, and over the years I have progressed through pretty much every possible permutation from there. 

I love taking photos, but I am also obsessed with photos taken by others, especially pictures of people. Candids are the best--those images stolen in a moment when the subject has no idea they're being watched, when their emotion is worn openly, vulnerably. Those types of photos make me feel as if a small piece of time has been captured and tucked away to be savored later. 

The Buffalo Bill Center of the West has a photographic exhibit with hundreds of images from the old west and Buffalo Bill Cody's life. I have gotten lost in there staring into the eyes of the people in those photos. I wonder what they were thinking, how hot or cold they were, what their dreams were, if it ever occurred to them that a hundred years later someone would be wondering about them. I think about how that photo is there because light that bounced off of those people was then captured on film and used to create a likeness of them. I'm fascinated by the whole process. 

Old family photos are even better. My mom had this boot box full of old pictures--the black and white ones with the fluted edges, faded yellow toned ones with rounded corners from the seventies, glossy ones that were on this thick cardboard paper. That box was was so full that I had to shake it a bit to get the pile to flatten before the lid would seat all the way down. I've spent countless hours going through the lives in it. The Mama and Daddy I never knew lived in there--the Mama in peddle pushers and horn rimmed glasses, the Daddy with the Cheshire cat grin. Mama before she even knew Daddy existed. Daddy in an Hawaiian shirt. A Mama who didn't mind having her picture taken, a Daddy who took her picture. In one particular black and white photo, my oldest brother is about two years old, standing in front of a Christmas tree. His hand are clasped in front of him, and his face is alight with mischief. Mama used to love to tell the story about how many ornaments he broke that year.

I think it was the Mama in peddle pushers who took that picture.

All these images, as rich and wonderful as they are, are less than half of the story, though. What lay behind the lens when those pictures were taken? Did Mama look through it at her first born boy in a room with just the two of them, or was Daddy there, too, sitting off to the side watching his small family steal a moment for the future? If it really was Mama, was she tired or laughing or frustrated or sad? Was it in their apartment in Gainesville? Or were they still at Cherry Point? All we can see is the bottom part of the tree and the boy who tried to destroy it. The rest of the story lies in front of him and out of our view. 

In the picture at the top of this post, the little girl I once was is in the front yard petting my brother's dog. Jody, a blue merle Australian Shepherd and the first dog I remember being mine, stands off to the side. I'm pretty sure that Mama is taking the picture. I'm pretty sure that her hair is just so and she is wearing slacks because I was practically grown before I saw my mother in a pair of jeans. I'm pretty sure she was worn out from working all the time and equally sure she was still prepared for whatever school activity I had coming up because there was always another school activity.  I'm pretty sure it's her shadow in the picture not because it looks like her, but because she was usually the one with the camera, the one watching what the rest of us were doing, standing ready in case she was needed. I wish she had been in front of the lens more. I wish I could see into her eyes instead of through them. Because while she wielded the camera, her story was secreted away behind it with her. 

That's the magic of a photograph. Each one has many stories--the ones in front of the lens and the ones behind it. 

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        Unless otherwise noted, all material--written, photographic, and artistic--is the original work of Estora Adams. All rights reserved.