The negatives are in thin plastic sleeves, hand-cut in stripes of four or five. No labels but simply stacked in an old cigar box; three hundred sleeves, four hundred perhaps, maybe more. I found them in the back of the attic in Gloucester; I don’t think I had ever seen them before, in fact now that I think about it a bit more, I know I haven’t.
My half-brother Stuart says our dad had one of the few darkrooms in Burma back then, sixty years ago back when it was called Burma not Myanmar. The proof is in my hands. My dad put them there.
He carried these negatives from Burma back to the States, from the end of his first marriage to the start of his second, from house to home, to Boston, to Gloucester from the house across the street to this one.
I take them fifty sleeves or so at a time into Boston to a photo lab; I could take more at a time but it seems smarter not to somehow. They take them and put them one by one on a disc for me and I pick them up once a week. The first disc slid into my computer and then, image by image, I get a glimpse back to that place, those moments, my father’s life.
I can hear the snap of the Leica button, the click, click click as he forwards the film. Focus, click, forward. Snap. His old Leica sits on my desk now. The snap of the camera, and the accompanying shot of what was seen at that moment in time.
I can see the details, the piece of paper held, the license plate on a car, but those small clues don’t add up to anything for me. I try to hear my father, I close my eyes and listen to see if he will share the stories of the pictures with me.
A man appears smiling at the camera, short cropped hair, is he 30 in the picture like my father was in 1952? Was the short hair left over from the service in World War II? What’s he holding in his hand? It’s typed paper of some kind. A memo? Orders?
My father would have been able to say his name and the place – ‘ why that’s Bill Johnson in the house on Park Road’ ‘why that’s Sam Jones over at the club.’ But all I get is the picture, an unknown man in an unknown place looking over at my father who was behind his trusty Leica. My father didn’t really speak like that now that I re-read this but you get my point. You know what I mean.
Did the man with the short black hair work with my father? Were they friends? Is he still alive? Does he remember that time and place? Do his kids? Did he and my father share a house together? Was he visiting from home? Maybe he was a houseguest of my father and his first wife. Maybe he stayed too long, not long enough.
Maybe he came to visit and fell in love with Burma too. Maybe he was there first. Maybe his hair was short because he was on the USS Bradford with my dad.
I have thousands of pictures of places I haven’t seen, of people I don’t know, of a time I didn’t live of a place I haven’t been too yet.
I label them my way “a large Buddha head an overgrown temple.” “A party by a lake.” The labels are my way of keeping track of what I don’t know. I hope I will get to know some of the stories, I realize most are lost and that I and you will never know the details past what we can see.
The first batch I looked at with my friend S who sat besides me as I clicked and clicked. She helped me guess the places and the people, her guesses as good as mine.
Somehow, though, it feels too personal to share for me so I look at the rest alone, in the dark, usually quietly with no music on. I click and click looking, seeing, wondering, making up the stories, trying to imagine the laughter that day, or the conversation that came before or after.
My father was the man behind the camera so it’s rare I see him. Occasionally, well once so far, someone took the camera out of his hands and snapped a picture of him, – but out of his hands the photos are usually a bit blurry, poorly framed.
Usually, I see what he saw in that moment and snap, for that moment, a beautiful black and white click of connection, snap, even if I don’t know where I am or who that is that is smiling back at me, for that moment, snap, focus, forward, snap, I am he, and he is me.