Southern Seen — Memorable moving pictures

Southern Seen — Memorable moving pictures

Posted: Monday, September 29, 2008 10:17 pm
By: Larry McGehee


Memory is fragile. What seems indelibly imprinted on the mind fades with time’s passing, like the inky script of love letters left lying in the sun. The longer our distance in time from unforgettable moments, the more we find ourselves having to rely upon tricks to trigger recall. 

Photographs are such a trick.

When visiting our mother the first place we used to head was for her stacks of old photo albums. No matter how many houses she inhabited, the constant thing about “home” was the hundreds of photographs she kept. Behind them were evoked memories. Each was a cue for a story; each confirmed our prior existence. “Mobile memory” is not an oxymoron.

In our study now is a box of photographs accumulated and handed on from deceased grandparents and great aunts. They, too, had stories behind them, but now most of them are lost. Who are these people, frozen in faded sepia, staring out at us? What were the occasions that had this one dress in Sunday finery and pose in a studio, that one pause in a buggy along a country lane, and those break from a picnic long enough to line up in rows for a camera?

Nestled snugly In the attics of our mind, like generations of mice in woolly insulation, are all that we have seen and been, all whom we have known and touched, all that we have done and felt. Thoughts and feelings only appear to be fleeting, but they are not. They are only pushed off center stage by the daily onrush of fresh faces, experiences, sensations, and ideas.

No computer, no matter how vast its retentive powers, can duplicate the human memory. Computers store pure information, but our own minds can do more: we can store emotions. The frustration we have with our memory banks is that we know how much they are capable of holding, but we forget the keys to punch to call up what we want to relive.

Photographs help. Still life snapshots animate our lives. They empower us with the gift of having a past. They give us a sense of continuity without which we would feel we were only loose cannon on the deck of the world. They summons forth spirits to inspire us, vows and expectations once made we might otherwise lose, dreams we think we have grown too tired to have, faces we thought forgotten.

When we have an uninterrupted evening to look at them in chronological order, our collections of photographs link isolated instances together to form movie reels. If we were unable to see ourselves in such perspective, we could not truly see ourselves at all. None of us is what we are at this particular moment. Either we are more, as the pictures tell us, or we are nothing at all. Memory, preserved and aroused by photographs, brings us to life again. Blood flowing through our veins gets us through each day, but memory flowing through our minds gets us through our lifetimes.

A picture of a college class reunion lies before me now. It took place only five months ago. But who are those people in this picture? We can’t name half of them, but when we pull out older pictures from our college annuals, we can name everyone instantly.

With the old photos, we know each other better as we were than we do from a recent one night stand. The difference is in continuity, in greater sense of wholeness and depth of having a sustained past instead of just a throw away present.  The years between Then and Now were not shared years for Them and Us. We have no photos to connect Then with Now. Evolution has been skipped; continuity has been disrupted. Without old photos, the reunion photo has absolutely no meaning. It is as if we are different persons altogether, strangers.

Living people, of course, are better than photographs. Live people who have shared moments and lifetimes together are talking pictures. But they are not always with us. We move on too often; we die on each other too soon; our promises to write and to call and to visit go unkept. We find ourselves alone, grateful for photographs, wishing for the people in them, wanting to say, “Thanks for the memories.”

Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at
Published in The Messenger 9.29.08

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