I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a while, but whenever I sat down to do it, I got writer’s block. I’d think about it all day, then finally have time to work on it, and suddenly all motivation and interest escaped me. Things changed today. My mom gave me a framed photograph, which I once had given to my grandpa (my dad’s dad). He passed away a few years ago, and now his old house is no longer owned by all his children and what is left of my grandpa’s possessions have been cleared out. My mom saved the photograph to return to me.
I took the picture as part of a project in my first photography class. We could do anything we wanted for our last assignment. A previous assignment on low light photography combined with night drives through Detroit with friends inspired my choice to photograph the city at night. I convinced some friends to be my “bodyguards” while I photographed old buildings. I was not very knowledgeable about architectural photography, nor was I exactly channeling Ansel Adams with my printing skills, but I was so enthralled with the process of making photos, especially in the dark room, and the results that came from photographing in low light. The long exposures revealed so much more detail than a person could see with their eyes alone. I was so excited and proud of the project. When I showed the series to my grandpa, he really fixated on the one of the old Michigan Building. The site where Henry Ford built his first automobile, the building is a former grand movie palace of the 1920s. Now it is a famous parking garage. My photograph doesn’t even show the most interesting parts of the building – I struggled on this project and a later one to really capture both the outside and inside at the same time. In reviewing the project, my professors commented on the harsh angles and darkness of my photographs, which in their view reflected the deteriorating state of the building and the general decay of the city. As an optimist, that was far from my intent, but it was a good lesson for future projects. For some reason, though, my Grandpa loved it. So I framed it and gave it to him for Christmas and he hung it on his wall.
My grandpa was an amateur photographer himself. After he died there were boxes upon boxes of slides to go through. I wanted to be in charge of them – I had studied photography after all, I knew how to care for them. But I did not have the confidence to assert myself, nor the family position to really do anything. Grandpa had family pictures of himself, my grandma, and their kids – nine boys and one girl. He took pictures of various Detroit landmarks and attractions, some still there, some long gone; nature scenes, like near his cabin at Ranger Lake in Canada, or his property at Higgins Lake, where he eventually moved after my grandma passed away; various trips with the kids; and later the grandchildren. There is one picture of my grandma sitting near the shore at Ranger Lake. She and the trees around the lake are silhouetted in front of a beautiful sunset reflecting on the water. The colors have shifted as most older color film and prints do, and it was mostly magenta hued, but still beautiful and peaceful. My aunt claimed that one.
I took an interest in photography at a young age and my Grandpa always encouraged me. He bought me a subscription to National Geographic so I could marvel at the images and dream of photographing my travels when I grew up. When I decided to study photography in undergrad, it was not without considering his influence. I was only the second person in the family to go to college and earn a bachelor’s degree, and I know he was very proud of me.
My grandpa also had an interest in history, but I didn’t really get into it myself until after he passed. He was always reading obscure (to me) books that looked so boring when I was young. I wish I had had a better appreciation of history while he was still alive so that we could share that, too. But I guess that’s how things go sometimes.
I was thinking of all of this after my mom gave me the picture, and I thought about how much I wished my grandpa was still alive, and how I wished he could know the work I do now. I’m an archivist, which means I work with historic papers and photographs. I’m not sure he knew what archives are – not many people do – but I’m sure he would understand their importance. I could take him on a tour of my workplace in Detroit and show him all the interesting things I see every day. It is interesting how without even thinking about it, I’ve ended up in a career that combines many interests my grandpa and I shared. I think he would find my work interesting and that he would still be proud, maybe even more proud of me.
Now I’ve decided I want to write a book, but I don’t have a topic. I want to write about photography and history, in any number of ways they intersect. I think if I wrote a book, my grandpa would be real proud of that too, and he might even read it and enjoy it (given his interest in even dry history books). So that is what I’m thinking about as I get started writing this blog. I will be exploring topics for a book and hopefully improving my writing skills along the way. I will focus my topics on photography, history, and archives, but I may also write about anything else that inspires me. And I’ll be working with my grandpa’s memory as my motivation.