So much hope and pleasure is built into the studio portraits sent home to Nova Scotia by migrants to the Boston States. These photographs express the success of the migrants, and sometimes also announce changes of status, and introduce new spouses or progeny:
Formal group photographs, often taken with special cameras, are a special case, often packed with manifold significances. On the one hand, such an image is saved and might be framed because the owner is one of the scores of faces in the photograph, and the image is a talisman of an event and a skein of relationships ("That's me, and that's Eddie and that's ...oh I forget..."). years later the relationships have probably attenuated, but the memory of participation may still be salient. For a viewer who has no personal connection with the event or the group, the image may fascinate for imputed characteristics of the participants, or might be read as a mapping of the mental landscapes of the sitters, or may evoke more idiosyncratic interpretations.
Perhaps the point is to remind ourselves that each image is a single point in a vast mosaic of people in time and space, and that the glorious task of linking up and narrating the landscape is basically a matter of zooming in and out, up and down levels of granularity. The 'evidence' will be forever incomplete and subject to variant interpretations and alternative readings, but the fun and the creative excitement is surely in the effort to extract patterns and tie them into broadened understanding of who we are and how we got to the present moment.
There's room here for the sober analyst and the cynical ironist, for the serious photographer and the whimsical collage artist, for the genealogist and the local historian. Meaning is to be found wherever one casts one's eyes, and it's not necessary to be a semiotician to extract significance and cultural insight from interrogating collections like this.