My genealogical research has been interrupted these last few weeks while I was fulfilling a long held dream to take an intensive Spanish language course in the Andalusian city of Granada. But now that I’m back to the cold northern springtime it feels as if it was an experience that happened to someone else. The city was a full-on sensory experience: the light was intense and hot; the narrow streets of the old Arab quarter in front of the school’s apartment echoed day and night with the noise of traders and passers by and revellers, making sleep impossible; the smell of spices and sweetmeats and jasmine lingered in every corner of the whitewashed lanes. I’m not even sure if I was able to really improve my Spanish as my brain was mostly taken up with processing everything going on around me.
However, while away from home and out of my comfort zone I also was able to view my family photographic collection with new eyes. Images that seemed strange or surreal jumped out at me and I began to see patterns connecting previously uncategorised photographs. Some startled me out of my rigid way at looking at the album and I thought more about the person behind the lens. Others were photographs that no-one in the family could clearly define or describe and that transcend the normal idea of an image in a family album, becoming surreal and disconnected and forcing the viewer to see the world anew.
One such photograph I discovered while originally searching for images related to work was of two labourers leaning against a stone wall, one looking absurdly tall next to the other. My mother believes this to be her Great Uncle Adam Neilson – a short man with a great sense of humour who was a blacksmith by trade. But there is something about this image which I find simple and playful, and at the same time it strikes me as rather unusual, even if it was never intended it to be so.
Little and Large
Another image where the focus is on the number of people is that of a my mother’s paternal grandfather (who died before she was born) flanking a window with his daughter Netty and another young woman – possibly one of the four sisters – staring out from behind the glass. I love the ghost-like appearance of the face gazing through the window panes and the relaxed posture of the Netty and her father. And sometimes when I look at this picture I can almost imagine that they are not aware of the other person between them.
And Then There Were Three
A picture which I found rather disturbing was one my mother told me was of a partially sighted woman in an Edinburgh street. I’ve spent a long time looking at the photograph and am almost convinced it is a mannequin rather than a person. No one knows who took the photograph or why, and obviously today it would quite rightly be deemed an offensive thing to do. But what is particularly strange about this photograph is the way the mind flip-flops between thinking it is a person and a doll-like figure, perfectly illustrating Freud’s idea of the uncanny in which the frisson of fear comes from the ambiguity of the situation.
Woman or Mannequin?
Another slightly strange picture is the one below of a family gathering in which only one person appears to be recognisable today. After many hours of cross-checking censuses and other documents, my mother and I gave up trying to identify the other people and accepted that apart from the man in the top left corner (a great-uncle of my mother’s, recognisable due to his likeness to her maternal grandfather, Robert Neilson) we would probably never know who they were. Thus these fascinatingly old people whose wizened faces are testament to the fact they would have been born at the dawn of photography, would always just remain as spectres from another era.
The way the group all cock their heads and gaze directly at the camera gives the impression that they are challenging us to think about their lives and what they have witnessed. They reach across time with their silent messages. We can only guess at what they have to say.
The Incidental Genealogist, April 2023