Tuesday, July 6, 2010

other people's lives

Where even to begin with this project?

I guess here, with this: On May 8, 2010, I attended a local, neighborhood yardsale. It's important to note how close I came to not going to the sales that day. It was a really humid day with the threat of rain (not my idea of great yardsaling weather) and there was actually another sale (held indoors at a retirement home up the street) I had my heart set on attending. To top things off, I had a 10 am appointment and didn't want to risk being late for that. In the end, I decided to accompany my friend to the neighborhood yardsale because: 1.) I didn't want to be sitting around till my 10 am appointment--other wise put, I wanted something to kill the time between 8:30 and 9:45, and 2.) it became apparent early on that my friend wasn't game for the retirement home sale--she had attended this event before and felt it was worthwhile only if you were interested in shopping for toasters.

Clearly not feeling the whole yardsale thing that day, I wandered up and down the streets, disappointed that so few people in the area were participating. We had been to a neighborhood sale a week or two before and many, many folks had participated in that one. On one street, there were two houses in a row that had stuff out front. At the first sale I found a large, unused aluminum camera/video case with lots of padding inside. I think I got that for 5-6 bucks. I was happy about the find but still not psyched about yardsaling. At the next house I noticed table after table of stuff. I walked up to something I thought might be an old Bakelite box camera (it wasn't) and I think it was at that point I noticed a lot of--how shall I put it? Kodak gold. I think my body began reacting before my mind did. My heart started beating quickly and then I started to spot, well, things that were that delightful Kodak gold and black. I don't recall now the order in which I saw things but the first items I picked up were a cigar box and what looked to be an old wooden recipe box. Both were filled with negatives. (see image above.) I don't typically look for (or in) such boxes, so maybe they were partially opened and I saw the negatives? My heart was beating like crazy at that point, and I asked the young woman putting stuff on a nearby table if she knew how much these cost. She didn't know, so she said she'd go ask "him." I remember thinking to myself, "Don't let on about how much you want these boxes." And I willed my hands to stop shaking. The young woman comes back and says "two dollars." So much for willing my hands to stop shaking. I then came across two developing tanks (one for reel film, one for cut film) and asked her to get a price for those. 2 dollars each. I found still more things I wanted and at that point "he"--the guy she had been asking about prices--comes up and asks if I'm the one interested in "all the old photo stuff." I say yes and he recommends that I pile everything I want on a space on the lawn and when I have everything I want, he'll come back and give me one price for the lot. "That" he said, "will make it easier for both of us." Plus, he assured me I'd get a better price for the stuff. [In my mind, I was thinking, "yes, but let's not forget that you said 2 bucks for the negatives."]

I had accumulated quite a sizeable pile of items on the lawn. Anything Kodak gold or seemingly camera-related went into the pile even if I wasn't sure of its use or purpose. I regret now passing on an old enlarger head but at the time I didn't want to have to carry it, had no place to use or really store it and worried that such a large item might make the price go up that much higher. World class stupid move as I was to learn later that day (after begging my friend to go back to the house and buy the enlarger head) that he had taken it to the dump when the sale ended. But that's another story. I ended up getting everything I had assembled on the lawn for 20 bucks. I would have easily paid triple or quadruple for the negatives alone, and the seller seemed open to further negotiation. He said my taking the stuff would save him the trouble of having to haul it all back in. As we left, my friend said, "see, you didn't try to talk him down from 20 bucks so he probably would have thrown in the enlarger for free."

What I had been referring to as "the recipe box" was filled with 4x5 negatives and a few photo prints. The cigar box--well, that held a more diverse collection of things. When I began looking through that box, in addition to various uncut rolls of medium format film and canisters of 35mm film, I found envelope after envelope filled with cut negatives, some were air mail envelopes, others plain envelopes and still other were envelopes from photo developers/shops. How so much stuff fit into the box I'll never know. Many of the envelopes were marked with names and maybe places (no dates though) and there were indications on some of copies made and/or exposure times. Given that one name in particular came up again and again, Carl L---, I was fairly certain it was his negatives and other photo equipment I had bought that day.

The only item in the collection bearing a date was a letter addressed to Carl from a man named Howard. The envelope contained a number of cut 127 negatives that had been taken during WWII. The letter was dated Feb 25, 1946. Howard wrote: "Dear Carl, I hope you are a happy civilian when this note reaches Baltimore. Some of these [I assume he is referring to the negatives?] are O.K. another others aren't much. I'm going back to Cornell for four months staring in March so I'll learn to write a longer line of bull then. Sincerely, Howard."

Turns out that the letter was addressed to a location about 5 minutes from where I live. On Thursday, May 13th, I decided to drive out there and try to find the house that Carl had lived in. I brought with me my camera and the letter from Howard. I didn't imagine that I'd have the nerve to walk up to the front door and knock (provided Carl's old house was still there, still standing), but I had hoped to get a picture of the house. As for bringing the letter with me, well, I guess I was thinking that in the case that someone should be out front, well, maybe I'd tell them what I'd found and figured that having the actual letter (proof) to mediate that introduction/interaction could prove helpful.

As it turns out, I didn't need to bring my camera with me that day as I had, a year or so before, taken this picture of Carl's old house.
I had been up in town that day testing my then newly acquired Argus c-4 rangefinder and took this picture of Leon's Restaurant and Bar. While I knew that I couldn't walk up to a stranger's house and knock on the door, sharing with whoever answered my yard sale story, I thought I could, in fact, walk into a public establishment and share my story.

The restaurant portion of the establishment was quiet at that point in the day, and I walked to a back booth, approaching the server who worked there. "Excuse me," I said, "but I was wondering if this was ever a private residence? You see, I bought a bunch of negatives at a yard sale last weekend and in one of the boxes was this letter post-marked 1946 and sent to this address." Her response: "What are you talking about?" My response: "I know this sounds crazy, but I purchased this (at this point I show her the proof) this weekend and I was just trying to learn more about whoever might have lived here." Her response: "What are you talking about?" She then explains how she will definitely be playing the establishment's address in the lotto as it was not more than a week, maybe two, ago that two women had been in the restaurant talking about how "when they lived here, the fireplace was there, and the kitchen was there" and so on and so on. "And now," she continued, "you come in here asking questions about who lived here." She recommended that I come back and talk with the owner of the restaurant/bar as he had been sitting and talking with the women and so would likely know who they were, what the story was, etc. The owner, Leon, wasn't in at that time of the day, but I was able to meet briefly with his wife who kindly filled in some details about the history of the house (i.e., who had lived here, when it became a restaurant/bar) and she also provided me with some info on Carl (the man whose stuff I had likely purchased) and his wife, Nancy--both deceased. I left my contact info with Leon's wife and he phoned me later that evening and we arranged a time for me to come in so that he could look at the images I'd scanned into my computer thus far. [At the time, I had little idea of how many images the collection contained. At this point, having scanned them all, save for many of the 4x5 negatives, I can say there are approximately 700 images in all.]

I've met with Leon twice now. I bring my laptop with me to the restaurant and we sit together and go through the scanned images. When he can identify (or even provide me with his best guess about) the people/places in the images, he does so and I make notes. In this image, Leon reflects on the women in the image below. The brunette is his (now-deceased) sister, Mildred, and the blond is her good friend, Esther. Leon's guess is that the photo was taken in Ocean City.

As for the women who had been in Leon's a week or so before I happened in there, Leon explained that one of the women was named Doris, a cousin of Carl's wife, Nancy. Doris was accompanied that day by her daughter. There are quite a few images of Doris in the collection--a few with Doris and a child who may or may not be her daughter. My hope, at this point, is that Doris will be willing and able to meet with me sometime in the near future. While Leon could put names to faces and places for about 1/2 to 3/4 of the images (and this was primarily because there were so many images of Carl and Nancy in the collection), there are still other people and places he couldn't identify. I'm hoping that Doris can help fill in some of the missing pieces for me.

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