Every week or so, I volunteer a few hours of my time at a place called The Keep. For those reading this from elsewhere in the UK or the world for that matter, The Keep houses the public records for East Sussex and Brighton & Hove. With a couple of sturdy degrees in Photography I wanted to lend my knowledge and skills to somewhere that may find them useful. Viewed from the curving road that is the A27, the building itself is a large box housing climatically controlled storage for a huge variety of local and historical information. This could reveal itself in the form of artefacts, newspapers, documents, audio recordings, and of course, photographs.
My first job was scanning a collection of glass plate negatives from the early 20th century. In a small team of precisely 2, we cleaned and scanned several boxes of images from someone else’s family history. It was great to be handling actual negatives once more, a rare experience now as so much of what I do uses a digital process of some kind. The negatives shimmered as the light reflected off the glass and the negative silver. The plates are about 2” x 3”, thin glass maybe 2mm, some with captions but most without. They are photographs from the family of a solicitor who lived in Hastings, a town perched on the edge of the South Coast of England.
The images show a variety of scenes; landscapes, houses, a garden, family groups, new babies in cots, portraits and the pet rabbit arranged carefully on a small wicker stool. How similar they are in subject to the contemporary snapshot. We still take photographs of the same things. The people close to us, the animals that are a part of our domestic lives, our gardens, houses and of course the newest baby in the family. Now we can share the plethora of images we make across a whole variety of social media. My colleague referred to it as ‘the human condition’. I ponder this phrase and of course do a google search, and Wiki comes up with this rather melancholy view.
“The human condition encompasses the unique features of being human, particularly the ultimate concerns of human existence. It can be described as the unalterable part of humanity that is inherent and innate to human beings and not dependent on factors such as gender, race, culture, or class. It includes concerns such as the meaning of life, the search for gratification, the sense of curiosity, the inevitability of isolation, and the awareness of the inescapability of death. In essence, the human condition is the self-aware, and reflective nature of homo sapiens that allows for analysis of existential themes.”
I think I shall consider this while uploading my Instagram pictures. Really, no one needs to know I use a shot glass in absence of an eggcup for my boiled egg in the morning.
My Mum has a lovely gallery of framed family photographs going up the wall next to the stairs in her home. Pictures of my Grandmother and my Grandfather share the space with other older pictures of Great Grand-folk that head up the family tree. I do love old family black and white pictures. Partly I guess it’s seeing people that I only remember as ‘old’ suddenly re-appearing young, as babies even. As I gaze at the pictures marvelling at the smooth, unlined skin of my Grandparents I realise how treasured photographs are.
Further down the stairs are a more recent set of pictures and I am struck by the similarity between the photograph of my Mum as a baby (below left) and then one of myself at the same age ( below right). There we both sit, one in a studio, one in the garden. Both of us revealing wiggly toes from underneath our pretty dresses. Perhaps it is stating the obvious. We are all fascinated and impacted by the same set of experiences; birth, life, death. The fact that we all take pictures that are so similar in themes is no surprise. Perhaps the photograph, in particular the snapshot, allows us to say ‘I know that too. I get it. I understand how that is.’ There must be millions of sunset pictures floating about the world but it doesn’t stop us from taking more, trying to capture that moment for ourselves and to share.