Abandoned Ancestors

cyanotype of Maine farmstead

The great poignancy of a photograph like this is its sheer anonymity: who the family was, where and even precisely when they lived, what the horse's name was, all these facts are simply unknowable. That the image exists at all is a providential accident, since somebody didn't throw it away, and I was able to rescue it and weave it into a project that gives it a new life as an exemplar.

The images that follow are nearly all similarly anonymous, though some offer indications of place of origin, and occasionally it's possible to put a name to a sitter. Rarely (but tantalizingly) a name will lead to further details of a person's life, but usually we must rely on tissues of supposition and inference. So we ask: what can we extract from these images? They are real people who lived real but generally unknowable lives.

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. (George Eliot, last sentence of Middlemarch)
In studio portraits (which most of these are), the sitters are pinioned by the formality of sitting before the camera, and are all making some attempt to present themselves so that the photographer can capture the earnestness that they imagine to be their essence. Each image stands alone, and invites our eyes into a dialog, in which we discern a common humanity. They come to us as exposed, guileless, often risible in their quaint clothes and now-unfashionable hair styles. We may imagine for them personalities and casts of mind, and it's easy to come up with titles that express what we read into the scanty evidence of the photos. No harm is done: all are across the River Styx and on to whatever comes next. I think it ought to be the Pratchett Diskword version and/or the Gaiman Sandman version myself.

It has occurred to me that there's a book here that has a specific audience (writers of novels and tellers of stories) and a subtitle:

A Gallery of Literary Provocations

one image per page, maybe spiral-bound so that it can lie flat,
maybe with and maybe without hints.
Still scheming.


Some other collections:

Thomaston album -|- Lynn English High School, 1929 -|- from Bluenose Physiognomy -|- from Who Was Joe Wilner?


(This gallery will be
reorganized, subdivided, annotated
as and when I'm inspired
and of course more images will be added
as and when I get around to scanning them.
Meanwhile, scroll through them and meditate upon
their essential quidditude, one by one.)

how can anybody be that thin?

write your own novel

God's gift to Torrington CT

sincerely '07
(see more detail here)

Olive S.


Jesse Lee and Ethel Louise Sanborn

another Gone But Not Forgotten





white tie

clapboard lineup


Mary Dodge



square-jawed clergyman



Abenaki ?





Look right at the camera...

Elwood, Elwood Jr., and Anne

Nothin' says lovin' like somethin' from the coven

Alfred Truesdell

No Nonsense, None At All

Meriden shower detail

good times 1933

Achorn Cemetery in Rockland

Seaside Cemetery, Tenants Harbor



continue on to a Thomaston album or Lynn English High School, 1929 or Bluenose Physiognomy or Who Was Joe Wilner?