The Accidental Photo Organizer
Ann Monteith has been a professional portrait photographer for thirty years. She is past President of the Professional Photographers of America; an author of books on photography and the photography business; and a former educator in photo journalism, English composition, and marketing. ~ Cathi Nelson
The Accidental Photo Organizer
by Ann Monteith
When I found the photographs, I felt like Alice who fell down the rabbit hole. It was the biggest shock of my life. Why would I not know about the photographs, you ask.
I was an Army brat. We moved thirty times before I got married. If that sounds impossible, sometimes we lived in temporary housing while waiting for our permanent (so to speak) house. When you move that many times, you don’t have time to set up a real household. It seems like no sooner do you unpack and you’re packing back up again. So that’s one reason. The other reason is that I have no recollection of my father taking a lot of photos. He must have been pretty quiet about it when I was younger. There- fore, there was no reason that I would know there were photos somewhere out there.
People usually need to “hunt and gather” their photographs. I came upon mine accidentally. I needed another guest room, so I went to a room that only the kids had used years ago. I was looking around and opened a closet. There was a very large, very heavy box filled with files. In the files were photographs.
I don’t know how long they had been there. When my father died about ten years ago, things were chaotic. I was President of the Professional Photographers of America, and he was in a nursing home for the final six months of his life. He had remarried after my mother died, so his belongings were in the home that he and his wife shared. After he died, a file cabinet was brought into our garage by someone—I have no idea who put it here. As busy as I was, I never looked inside of it. I imagine that the box must have appeared at the same time and somehow made its way to that closet.
The first photos I saw were taken when my father was stationed in Japan. My memory of Japan is strong. The photos confirmed my memories. There was the art nouveau furniture that I remembered. There was my nanny, Marie. I was transported back to that time and place. I thought, “What a shame that I don’t have photos of the rest of my life growing up!” And then I found the rest of my life. My father had recorded my life!
He also recorded images of post-war Japan. There were photos of Yokohama and Hiroshima. The thing that astounded me, besides his mastery of the camera, is that the photos are exactly the kind of thing that I do when I’m working on street photography in Ireland.
Once I discovered the box, I thought about the file cabinet. There were my mother’s scrapbooks about her early upbringing in Arkansas. Now I had a whole secondary level of photographs. I began piecing the stories together. Some of them left me sitting there bawling because they are so powerful.
I remember my grandmother (my mother’s mother). I spent a great deal of time with her. She was the heart of the family, an amazing woman who arrived in Arkansas in a covered wagon and homesteaded. I went back there in the 1990s and have many photos from that time.
Among the photos that I found in my mother’s scrapbooks was one of the most poignant of all—my aunt, Mary, who I never knew because she had died of complications in childbirth. Her husband died within two days—they say from a broken heart. Their son Buck lived with my grandmother and became my mother’s “other brother.” There were photos of my mother’s three brothers and the fourth one, Buck. Buck was killed in World War II when he was twenty-two years old. Two weeks before he died, he had writ- ten to my mother and mentioned me. How great it was to see me. I was a year old at that time. My mother saved letters as well as photographs.
My grandmother always said I was so much like Mary, because I did a lot of things with my hands. She said Mary could always make something out of nothing. She sure did! I have a photo that Mary took of my other aunt with a pinhole camera that she made. Cardboard and a piece of film! Lord only knows how she got the thing printed. In the background is a quilt that she made. I’m a quilter also. It’s been a tremendously emotional journey. I’m not usually emotional, but this is all such a gift, and the gratitude I feel is extraordinary.
I want to share all that I’ve learned about my father and mother and many of the other relatives in the photos. I want my kids to know where they come from because they come from very strong people. That’s one of the great gifts of all of this. And so the narrative is extremely important to me. I’d be a lot farther along with organizing the photo- graphs, except I’ve been creating the narrative at the same time. The photos and the narrative are one to me. I couldn’t have done one without the other.
One of the things that I’ve been struggling with is how to tell the story without boring my children senseless. At the same time, I want to tell these stories in bits and pieces so that they can digest them and maybe then they’ll want more.
As an English teacher, I taught that you have to know how to engage your readers. Who are my readers? My fifteen-year-old grandson. He’s the one that I’m thinking about as I weave my tale of our family history.