A complete album is a rare find in the antique shops I frequent. If an album is offered for sale, it has usually been emptied of its contents, images separated to sell individually so that the seller can make a larger profit. (If you are a regular reader of this column, you already know that I object to this treatment. Collections contain more informational value when they stay together. Furthermore, many albums, atlases, illuminated manuscripts and other artifacts that we can appreciate artistically are often destroyed for profit, greatly depleting their artistry. ) Albums stripped of their images in antique shops are usually beautiful, with fine leather or fabric covers that enclose hard pages of windows for mounted photos. However, a couple of weeks ago, I came across a set of albums offered intact. Their soft leather covers wrapped around slowly deteriorating soft black pages and their photo corners precariously cradling black and white images of unidentified faces.
With some difficulty, I chose to purchase only one of the three albums. I did this in deference to my finances and storage space. I was hesitant to split the collection, but there is nothing in any of the albums to identify from where they came and to whom they belonged. Each album was a mirror of the other with more unlabeled characters. I told myself that I was not taking away any historical information. It was already lost. Few repositories would want any more albums of nameless faces. (I say this without getting into a theoretical discussion about when a repository might actually want such an item because there are times when an unidentified album can still be an archival treasure.) Additionally, in my judgment, these albums do not have any intrinsic value as a set. Each individual album is a treasure as a window into a particular time and lifestyle, but since the family was unidentified the wholeness of the set was less relevant.
The album reveals a large Catholic family in the mid-twentieth century. Individuals, small groups and large groups pose for the camera, to be remembered for posterity. There are images of babies, couples, teens, adults, clergy, and even pets. Images are taken in apartments, on the street, in front of churches. Page one shows the image of a pretty young girl. I would like to assume that this is her album. We are given glimpses of major life events - weddings, confirmations, and the like. I think that I will spend hours poring over this puzzle, trying to piece together a story by identifying faces that appear over and over.
When I brought my object for purchase to the register, I asked the sales clerk if she knew from where the albums came. As she flipped the pages with interest she told me that the individual dealers in the shop generally get items at estate sales. I told her, "It's a shame that no one can identify these people and that the history of this item is lost." She responded, "Oh well. That's what the family decided." I wondered aloud if the family realized that their community beyond their relatives may have had an interest in these albums. She looked up from the album as I explained that I am an archivist and I know many places that would love materials such as this for their collections if people could provide information about the people and places pictured. "Really? I didn't know that. These are really interesting," she said as she looked back down and began flipping through. She was losing herself in thought and told me, "You know, I wanted to be a nun like the ones pictured here."
Albums give us a lot to think about. They provide a look at the lifestyle of an individual family and offer little slices of how that family networked with the outside world. One may even find herself comparing her own family story to that of another when confronted with a stranger's album, reliving our own dreams and experiences as translated from a camera lens. As with any book, the story it tells is one in which we can dig in with our imagination.
(Blogger is not letting me post more than one image today. If you would like to see more images from the album, please visit my Facebook. page http://www.facebook.com/pages/ArchivesInfo/156934267979?v=photos&ref=ts)