Tuesday, November 9, 2010

More Finds at the Local Antique Shop - Puzzlers

I have been puzzling over this image since last week. It was included among my purchases of community images -- the others I placed in my last blog post -- but this one has me really stumped. Why are these men sitting on a mountain in the snow? How did they get here? Who is the man who has decided to stand and why is he not sitting with the others? I am assuming that this image was taken in New Hampshire, since this is where I purchased it and we are blessed with such vistas. I will continue with that assumption until it is disproved.

Last week in my "Life in Context" workshop, an audience member asked what to do with these puzzlers that get passed down through families. When we have done all we can to find out about the people in the image -- when we've asked every family member we can think of, have asked old friends, and perhaps even posted images online for identification -- what do we do with them? A cultural heritage repository, for the most part, will not want an image of an unidentified person or place. There comes a point when we can feel free to let images go. As part of the appraisal process, they are regarded as virtually worthless. Their story is lost and the subject cannot be teased from it, having no relationship to anything. When there is no context, there is generally no value. The image remains a single item that provides no evidence, no research value, and no historical connection. When you do not even have a personal sentimental connection to the piece, it can be discarded without guilt.

As always, there is a caveat...sometimes an image stands out as so unusual that it is conveying something that you do not want to lose to time. This image is one of those for me. I am taking the first step by asking you for your insight. The antique dealer and I had a small discussion about it to no end. I want to know if NH men had conferences at the top of mountains in the early twentieth century. (The man standing reminds me of Woodrow Wilson, so that early twentieth century date seems correct to me. Please let me know otherwise.) Could they have been planning a construction project? Could they have been investors in a ski lodge? I do not have enough knowledge of this aspect of history to make an informed judgement about the historical value of this image. Maybe some one else out there does. I feel as if there are more places I can look to pursue my questions and maybe find an answer. I will keep digging until I can give this image a bit of context or possibilities for context. If the situation is unusual, if I find no information at all, I will keep the image to tickle my own funny bone. (Perhaps I should call it "Silly Men in the Snow." My seven-seven-year-old would get a kick out of that title anyway.) If it is a common image or scene, I just hope there is a good story behind it that beats anything that I can possibly dream up.


  1. It depends...an image like that is surely too arresting and intriguing to let go. Personally I would favour keeping unidentified photographs as a memento mori - and as a reminder to yourself to always label your own photographs.

  2. Hi Anna! Thanks for commenting. I do agree with sometimes keeping photos. However, after collaborating with a professional organizer for a year, I have learned that sometimes people just need permission to let things go. There is often a sense of guilt associated with discarding certain possessions. There is nothing inherently valuable about a photograph as a document just because it's a photograph. One way to think of it is: Would you discard a letter from someone you didn't know? Would you throw away an old document that was undated and could not be connected to a particular person or place? Some people keep boxes and boxes of photographs of people they do not know and have no way to identify just because they were passed down to them. There comes a point when the material just becomes clutter, with no informational value at all. It is more important to make sure that we are properly preserving and saving space for the memories that we do have, rather than hanging on to forgotten memories that can't be recovered...hold on to an unlabeled photo that helps you remember to label you own, but don't hold on to a box of them.