Looking through old photographs with Mum was a yearly ritual on my visits home. Those long sessions as we went through boxes of images from three generations of the family were an excuse to talk about genealogy and share stories, some dating back to before she was born. It was my only possible remaining way into our whakapapa, of which I had and continue to have a lamentably scant knowledge. There are so many dark spots.
Finally last year, as I was helping Mum sort out the apartment in preparation for her final move, the time came for us to approach the task systematically, once and for all. And so one night I announced I would grab the large bundle of loose pictures from their drawer in the old writing desk, so we could choose which ones to keep and where to put them.
‘Don’t forget the ones in the false bottom,’ she called out from the living room.
It turns out that there was indeed a false bottom in the old writing desk, which everyone but me had always known about, and if you took the drawer out and pulled back a wooden panel, there it was, a large space comprising the entire back section of the desk. Inside there was another, larger bundle of pictures, some of which I had seen, many years before, and remembered, but most of which were totally new to me. In particular, there were two pictures, one of me and one of Dad, which we clearly took in quick succession, one of the other, during a winter holiday. Seeing those was like being granted the wish of a few more seconds spent together; some extra life.
Then, stuck in a corner at the very bottom of the pile, I found this. A small yellow envelope containing eleven Ektachrome transparencies, which we were quickly able to date very precisely to 10 May, 1961.
This requires a little back story. There were never proper photos of my parents’ wedding, the reason being that my uncle said he would take them and that it would be his present to Mum and Dad, but very few of them turned out to be any good. So who took those eleven pictures? And why were they never mounted onto slides? Mum had no recollection of them, so I can only speculate that another guest took them, and when he passed them on to my parents they didn't pay much attention, as they were still waiting for my uncle’s mother lode. Then they just forgot they existed.
It’s an unusual event to go all but unrecorded, a wedding, but to find a lost record over half a century later was truly unexpected. I wasn’t able to locate a laboratory in Milan that would process the transparencies while I was there, and I didn’t want Mum to have to worry about it, so I took them with me to Wellington, where I had them scanned and printed in time for this year’s trip. When I picked them up, I was genuinely moved by them.
It wasn’t just the quality and clarity of the images. It was also that they were in colour, unlike any other photograph of my parents from that period. This gave them an uncanny, timeless quality, and at the same time a sense of being truer to their subject. It also gave a renewed sense of reality to the idea of my parents as young people. As if you could reach out and touch them.
There was my grandparents’ house, not long after it was built, bathed in an achingly familiar light from my own childhood.
There were spring flowers. (They may not have been hers, but my grandmother was a terrific gardener.)
There was a sense of the occasion.
And there was this, the best picture of my parents I had never seen.
I love that I was able to show these to Mum. They prompted more stories, other conversations. I asked her if it would be okay for me to write about the find, and what it felt like. We shared in the pleasure of that unlikely, unexpected gift.
The pictures also exist as objects, faithful carriers of analogue information that may be left inside a secret drawer for fifty years and still be recovered intact, along with metadata about their history (the manufacturers’ markings, and so forth) and all the other details encoded in their physical structure, there to be read by people with the necessary expertise. It is a virtue of such objects that they can be lost. You couldn’t misplace a hard drive for an equal span of time and still hope to recover information from it, or even tell very much about what was on it. The preservation of digital images takes other forms. You make copies. You spread those copies around. But each of them has a comparable lifespan, and none of them is an object, a material thing whose fragile nature itself is a carrier of meaning. This is not to make a qualitative judgment. They’re just different.
Thanks to that difference, that uniqueness, we lost and then found my parents’ wedding album. It was a joy to discover it, when we were so nearly out of time.