Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What is in a Photograph?: Educator Jason Eisner on the Past and Present Program

During the dialogue component of the Past & Present (P&P) program, where we share, bring to life, and re-examine our memories, we frequently use a space in our historical Tenement informally known as “the parlor.”  Three decades ago, “the parlor” space was a storefront. Generations before that it served as an apartment -- a home to countless numbers of immigrant families. Walls were removed and painted innumerable times, locks were changed, plumbing and electricity installed, but being in this parlor you might think it had originally been designed as a communal meeting place.
The tables in the parlor are akin to the kind my grandmother had (tin topped with enamel-ized patterns and faux wood gaining), lined end to end like a banquet, and the chairs are all mismatched. There is a sense of collective memory in this parlor. Framed old photographs line the pink painted walls. 
I return time and again to the photographs on the wall -- images of people and times long gone but ever present. There are moments where discussions in the parlor heat up and the exchanging of memories provokes debate. Silently bearing witness to these rich dialogues are those people depicted and framed on the wall.
“Who are they? Where did they live and what did they do? Who took the picture -- A parent? A lover? A stranger? What became of them? And what was their story?” These are questions I have about the pictures, and in the quiet moments when I am cleaning the parlor at the end of our discussions, I am haunted by the idea that perhaps the people in the photographs are asking the same questions about us.
Photographs, like history, are slippery when you begin to look more closely. The stories they tell or conceal are not static; rather they are alive and fluid. We all have a collection of photographs and those images serve as a record of our memory. These pictures punctuate the stories we tell of our families and our history, but they may be suggesting an alternative narrative. Dare we look closer and ask of those silent mouths and far away eyes?
At two points during the tour portion of the P&P program, we share photographs of the families whose stories we tell: Natalie Gumpertz and Josephine Baldizzi. If we engage with the pictures of these women, we can more personally connect to their life.
Natalie Gumpertz is depicted wearing an elaborate Victorian style shirtwaist. As a dressmaker herself, did she make the garment she is wearing for the photo? Would this be a garment she would wear for only special occasions? Rather than looking directly at the camera, she is looking slightly to the right. Was she instructed to do this?  Or perhaps she was frightened by the photographic process? Her eyes do not betray a sense of fear. Could she have brought one of her children with her and was focusing her attention on what they were doing beyond the lens of the camera? And it looks as though she might speak, her lips caught between smile and austerity. Could Natalie be about to tell us her last memory of her husband before he vanished from her life?
Josephine and Johnny Baldizzi

And there’s Josephine on the roof with her brother Johnny- she in her summer dress, and he in his sailor suit. Are these clothes that they only wore on special occasions? Why is Josephine sitting in the picture while Johnny is standing? Was she taller than he? Is this a composition Adolfo (their father and presumed photographer) was responsible for? Was Josephine happy about the composition -- her head is turned away slightly, but her gaze is fixed on the camera. She is almost scowling! Did her father have strong words with her about her protest?

Ultimately we will never know the answers, but if we open ourselves up to the inner drama of the picture, we are overtaken by it.

Likewise, by engaging history through the filter of the families who endured it, we intimately connect to the past. The P&P program allows us to expand this connection and to add our personal narratives to it. In the process is the discovery that we are not very different from people who lived one hundred fifty years ago; immigrants from Germany, Russia, Italy, or China who worked through hardship and who suffered, who lost and found jobs just as they gave birth to and lost children, who lived and loved, argued and made amends, and died in rooms.

There are revelations along the way, old myths and preconceptions shattered, and all of this because we dare to ask questions of our past. It is challenging but essential work in continuing the search for identity. For encouragement, I take heart in the words of a German immigrant whose picture I used to have on my refrigerator -- he was standing on the streets of New York sticking his tongue out at the camera: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.” --Albert Einstein

     - Posted by Jason Eisner, Tenement Museum Educator

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