“In my beginning is my end.”
“Nostalgia…is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.”
When I went through a stack of photographs left by my grandparents, I found eight images that stuck out. They were taken by my grandmother in 1995 and show my grandfather revisiting his childhood home for the first time in over 50 years. By that time, the once neat and well-kept home was dilapidated beyond repair. The images inspired me to think about different notions of homecomingand photography’s relationship to nostalgia.
Out of the eight photographs that I found, seven are of the interior of the house and the eighth photograph depicts the overgrown exterior. The only image depicting a person shows my grandfather just as he walks into the kitchen. He looks out of place in his crisp, white shirt, summer tan and immaculately creased trousers. Leaning casually against a doorpost (maybe for support? His legs and back were worn out from years of manual labour), he looks straight at my grandmother, at the camera, at me.
When reading the headlines of the newspapers visible on the floor, it is evident that my grandparents are not only standing in the remains of a personal history, but also that of a shared cultural past. The disarray depicted in the images is almost pleasant to look at, a sombre mosaic of disorder with several strands of time intersecting. Somehow, it feels as if the images depict my grandfather´s interior landscape. In the photographs the ravages of time are on full display and artefacts from different time periods intermingle. What, if anything, would my grandfather have recognised beneath the layers of dirt? Would his hand have remembered the touch of the doorknob as he entered? Were there scratches or marks that he could have derived back to some distant childhood memory? These are questions that photography can evoke, but fail to answer.
Since its invention, photography has become a useful tool in our effort to imagine the past. Modern history is cluttered with captured moments on paper and on hard drives, and our understanding of the past has subsequently gone through a radical change. Photographs give the impression of a more densely populated time sphere, as though more events have taken place since the camera was invented. It is hard to imagine a world without photographs today. When imagining the past, whether it´s World War II or events from our own personal past, we rely on photographs to help us do so.
However, in recent years the photographic image as document has been under questioning, which has weakened its status as “proof”. From this scrutiny, a greater understanding of the choices a photographer makes and how different technical and practical variables influence the final image has emerged. (3) Despite the questions that have been raised, photographs have not been deemed unreliable or obsolete. On the contrary, a discussion regarding other types of information that could be extracted from photographs has taken place. (4) By taking photography’s material and performative aspects into consideration, a richer understanding of our past can be had. We have simply gotten better at asking different types of questions when engaging with photographic material.
When interacting with my grandparents’ photographs, the prints have been an important source of additional information. The backs of the photographs have started to yellow, particularly around the edges. The surface of each photograph has a high gloss and when tilted, marks and scratches and fingerprints become visible. This suggests that photographs have been used, but used carefully, respectfully; they have been looked at and they have served some purpose.
In the photographs, I not only see my grandfather and the dilapidated house; I see my grandmother before me. She was famously tardy when it came to taking photographs; with her feet firmly fixed to the ground, eyes squinting, fingers sprawling, elbows pointing out, she would be deeply immersed in the act of photographing. Despite her careful composing and time-consuming efforts, the images were often out of focus and with the occasional blurry finger intruding in the corner of an image.
Nostalgia is an important component of retrospection, and therefore of photography. In her book The Future of Nostalgia (3), Harvard professor Svetlana Boym investigates how nostalgia permeates our culture and how it has historically emerged as a force during times of social and political turmoil. Boym traces the origin of the word nostalgia to the Greek words nostos, meaning return home, and algia meaning longing. (2) Since the term nostalgia was first coined in the late seventeenth century, it has held different statuses. Today, particularly within the artworld, displays of nostalgia, with its sentimental softness and passive yearning, are almost taboo. But to disregard nostalgia´s influence in society and inherent presence in photography would be to disregard something intrinsically human. At best, nostalgia has the capacity to unite us in the common experience of longing. At its worst, nostalgia can divide us on the question of how to return, and what to return to. As Boym points out, it is when the nostos takes over and one tries to recreate the past that it can become a dangerous force. (3)
At first, nostalgia was considered a contagious but curable disease, best attended to by medical doctors. But, as Boym writes; By the end of the eighteenth century, doctors discovered that a return home did not always treat the symptoms. (3)
Even then, they realised how nostalgia was dependant on distance to thrive. Eventually, nostalgia as a phenomenon was left to philosophers and poets to ponder, becoming one of the characteristic elements of the Romantic era.
It was towards the end of this epoch that we saw the dawn of the photographic medium. Early pioneers of photography, like Julia Margaret Cameron, David Wilkie Wynfield and Robert Adamson were all heavily influenced by the Romantic movement and helped establish a bond between photography and nostalgia. In fact, nostalgia seems to overlap with the basic structures of photographs on several levels. Both deal with distance in time and space to their subjects, and both can give the appearance of representing the past accurately, but are traitorous in the way that they warp our perception. Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is how they both generate an impulse to preserve, to keep the memories of the past sealed up, fixed. The nostalgic builds a shrine to the past within himself. Photographs become external artefacts in correlation to this inner shrine, both triggering nostalgia, and keeping it alive.
To help define the mechanisms of nostalgia, Boym poses an open-ended question in her book: “Can one be nostalgic for a home one never had?” (2)
In 2012, Tate Modern re-published Tales of Tono, a classic photo book by Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. (6) The book relays Moriyama´s efforts to create a sense of home using photography. It was first published in 1976 and mainly contains black and white images, and a few in colour. The images are grainy, some unsharp and with few straight lines in them, as if they were taken in haste. A newly written text by Moriyama was included for the new edition of the book. In the text, the ageing photographer looks back on his younger self, reflecting on the desperate state that he was in and what made him make a book about Tono, a town he had previously never set foot in. Having had a father in the military growing up, Moriyama moved around a lot as a child. As an adult he longed for a hometown to return to, not feeling quite at home anywhere.
He soothed his yearning by looking at maps, always keeping one close at hand. At night, he would study them when the rest of the house was asleep, overcome by a sense of absence. Onto the surface of the map, with its different colours and lines, dots and signs, he would project his longing. He was, in Boym’s words, “…looking for a spiritual addressee.” (3) If my grandmother´s images put emphasis on the return home, Moriyama´s work delves into the longing part of nostalgia.
He decided that it was in Tono that he would find what he was looking for. In his text he asks himself why it had to be Tono. It was partially due to the mythical narratives surrounding the city, he writes. In a book published in 1909, also titled Tales of Tono, Japanese ethnologist Yanagita Kunio had collected folklore tales from the residents of Tono. It was with these tales in mind that Moriyama set off to Tono by train in 1976.
At first, Tono seemed to match his expectations of what a hometown should be, serene, peaceful and bathed in light. But soon a question stared nagging within him: “Is this really what I want?”, admitting, “This is a bit extreme. The place evoked a feeling of annoyance.” The dilemma of nostalgic longing is painfully felt, even though Moriyama had no real memories of the place. His experience accurately illustrates Boym´s thoughts on modern nostalgia, saying that it is defined by “…a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values.” (2) Contrary to philosophers, who strive to be at home everywhere (2), the nostalgic wants to perform the impossible and attach his or her longing to a geographic location, to animate place with myth and experience, to shelter it from the present. In his book, Moriyama shines a light on the intricate web of fantasies and distortions associated with the nostalgic impulse, as well as with photography.
For years, professional photographers have tried to emulate the aesthetics of the snapshot, highlighting what were traditionally considered to be errors, perhaps few better than Moriyama. Although their prerequisites are vastly different, there is a kinship between my grandmother´s images and those of Daido Moriyama. There is a nerve and directness to the snapshot, something that has proven effective in dealing with a vernacular subject like home.
With artworks masquerading as amateur snapshots, the professional photographer can communicate new and exciting ideas through a familiar and accessible style. Given enough light, a camera will record everything that it is pointed at. This “point-and-shoot” mode of operating a camera allows for a loss of control associated with the amateur photographer. It highlights the camera’s influence over the final result. The snapshot is not a meticulously composed image where every detail has been reflected upon, it is an impulse, a spur of the moment thing. With this approach, the camera captures things that are beyond the photographer´s intention. I doubt that my grandmother found the newspapers or tins of cat food on the floor of the house important when she took the photographs. Yet, they are there in the photographs, and they inform my reading just as much as anything else. For an artist, the use of this method can be a way of inviting an element of chance. Some would argue that it’s even a way for the photographer’s subconscious to play a part.
In his text, Daido Moriyama describes an inner conflict between his emotions about Tono and the reality of Tono itself. This gap can be said to be one of the main characteristics of nostalgia. As soon as you turn to the origins of your longing, your vision of the place is challenged and starts to be taken apart in a painful, and perhaps sobering, encounter. Both the photographer and the nostalgic deal with details, neither too concerned with the bigger picture. They preserve only what they need and leave the rest. They are dependent on the frame, that some things are visible, while other things remain hidden.
Nostalgia is said to be history without guilt. (3) Depending on how it is used, photography holds the possibility to problematise nostalgia´s promise of a guiltfree past. Photography can make it harder for us to overlook and forget prior fallacy and error, but still only show fragments.
Photographs have shown great elasticity when it comes to the production of meaning. Depending on their context, photographs can be corrupted and made to tell almost any story. It is therefore vital that we have the knowledge to pose informed questions when dealing with photographs, to understand how they operate and relate to the past.
The nostalgic impulse seems to stem from a discontent with the present, be it on an individual or collective level. In the past, nostalgia has been proven to emerge as a strong force in times of political and social upheaval. We rely on photographs to help us make sense of the past, and to make substantiated decisions for the future. But what can one really learn from looking at photographs? In her book, Boym points out that the mere act of preserving something from the past does not automatically mean that it becomes useful to use to us, saying “Atlantis was not a “golden age” to be reconstructed but a “lost civilization” to engage with through ruins, traces and fragments.” Perhaps what is left out of the images is of equal importance, and the ability to forget as vital to face moving forward? Nostalgia is not intrinsically good or bad, it is deeply human to succumb to reminiscing, mourning the loss of possibility, what once was that no longer is. It’s not simply a person or a house that one is nostalgic for, it is an enchanted context, a deeply felt connection to a natural order of things. Nostalgia is made up of fragments, and photographs are indeed fragments.
There is no way of accurately rendering the past, and the invention of photography has not changed that. Left unchallenged, nostalgia’s tinted vision of the past can lead to some very narrow interpretations of our histories. Why, what and how we save, and how we contextualise that material are still relevant questions. Photography has given us a tool to look back at the past, a tool that we are still trying to comprehend.