Old Photos

For a few months after my mother’s death, I found myself swimming in old photographs. After spending hours each day sorting them on the dining room table of my late parent’s apartment, I finally brought shopping bags of photos home and finished sorting them in a less fraught environment. This is not to say that it became an easy task. It just became less difficult. I now have a series of neat boxes to cull through again at another time. I’ve also sent several boxes and oversized envelopes to relatives.

Old photos are poignant storytellers. Some are mysteries: Was Grandpa really that short? What is the name of the little boy climbing the tree in our yard? Is that my Dad’s college girlfriend? Were those extraordinary party photographs really taken by Dad’s friend the famous photographer? Who are the people at a conference with Mom? What was I thinking when I wore that awful blouse?

Others are sweet. There are a few of me “reading” to my younger sister when we were both toddlers. I’m betting I was making up the story as I turned the pages, or riffing on one of the stories our dad read to us at bedtime. I’m very fond of photos of me as a little girl with one of my much older cousins. She obviously enjoyed spending time with me and I idolized her. There are photos of me as a small child with my mom, my mom as a child with her mom, and my cousin (on that side of the family) as a child with her mother. Those photos scream family resemblance and the dominant genes of curly hair.

Photographs spark stories and story ideas. A few months ago I read an intriguing novel entitled ‘The Photograph’ by Penelope Lively. The premise is a widower’s quest to learn the truth about his late wife that is sparked by discovering a photograph that shows her surreptitiously holding hands with her brother-in-law. This evidence of an illicit relationship leads him on a wild goose chase to discover the many missing pieces of his “picture” of her. Did he know her? Did he know his own wife? He certainly didn’t know her as well as he thought before he saw the photograph.

When I look at family photographs taken long before I was born, featuring people I can no longer call, I find myself craving the stories the explain the images, and I have to make due with the stories I create in the absence of concrete information.

Is this the start of good fiction? Yes!


Family photos from the 1930s…


  1. I went through a stack of photos after my father’s death too. Many I’d seen before but there were literally two big albums full of photos ‘inherited’ from my late aunt, Dad’s sister. She never had kids so now I have photos of her friends, people I never knew at all, but I can’t make myself get rid of them.
    Stuff isn’t just stuff. It’s history and memories and a kind of faded immortality. Or maybe I’m just an incorrigible magpie. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      If you are an “incorrigible magpie” I’m one too!

      I sent two fat envelopes to one of my cousins. Neither of us is entirely sure about the identity of one, very dignified, lady posed in a portrait taken at a photo studio. I’m pretty sure that she was my father’s much beloved grandmother. No one who could verify this is still alive. My dad kept thousands (not exaggerating) of photos and many duplicates of some images, but he didn’t write names of people on the backs of the prints. My mom’s family took fewer photos and almost none taken by professionals, but they were a little bit better about writing names and dates on the backs.

      As I don’t have children, I wonder what kind of mess I’ll leave my heirs (a collection of friends & cousins kids). They will have even less information and yet… some of the photos are so good or so strange or so haunting that they tell stories without the facts! And in that way, they are a kind of immortality.

  2. My mom has an album full of pictures her parents took. My favorite one is of an old Indian woman that my grandpa took in Alaska. Quite the story could be spun from that photo. I always enjoy looking at it an imaging what her life was life.

    • Candy Korman

      Vintage travel & adventure photos have always been of particular interest to me. Yes, fabulous stories can be spun from that photo!

      21st Century travel is relatively easy and common. We don’t have the same kind of experiences our parents, grandparents, and further back had when they ventured out of their comfort zone and met people from different places. The world is so small by comparison. I’m imagining an interesting conversation between two people separated by age, gender, culture, experience, and more. A while back I bought two very old photos. One early 20th and the other late 19th century, both are travel scenes: Cairo during the afternoon siesta and the Arsenale in Venice. I can testify to little change in the building in the second, but the first is like a mythic moment at the beginning of an adventure, when everything is quiet and still.