Secondhand Experiences

Hélène Roger-Viollet, Summer Holidays in Camargue, 1954 (via mimbeau)

The bottle — I had to know the brand. I had already found the model of the car — a Panhard — and was trying to zoom in enough to read the label. No luck, too blurry. I tried an image search of vintage French liquor labels (it’s not going to be water or kombucha now is it?) to see if I could find a corresponding shape that would lead me to a name. I couldn’t find any. I settled for general details about Camargue and was pleased to find a number of odd (read: useful) tidbits — wild horses, flamingoes and an annual gypsy festival. The tattered oilcloth was promising.

You see, I have this hope — addiction, really — of teasing out a story from an old photograph. Not from a family album. Nothing that I have any personal connection to. But an image taken by one of the great (or lesser known but equally brilliant) street photographers — Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Kertész, and Roger-Viollet, a new discovery. I’m a magpie for decisive moments, hoping to catch them, define them, and extend them in both directions.

I guess it’s presumptuous of me to think so but when I hear people say — there must be such an interesting story behind this or that photograph — I think I’ll be the one to pinpoint it and shape it into a narrative.

But as soon as I have all these details that seem ready to coalesce into a pattern, I realize I’m missing the glue that holds them together. I hesitate to describe it as the human element (what a vague expression) but that’s really what it is. Without it, the story becomes an amateur anthropologist’s caption.

The thrill of looking through archives is finding secondhand experiences. It’s thrift shopping without the moths, browsing antique stores without accumulating dust. I may have never been to Camargue or driven a Panhard, but impromptu holidays and roadside picnics I know firsthand.