When my parents died a couple of years ago, my sister and I were left with a vast amount of physical stuff to clear from their house. Conditions last year were hardly conducive to long travelling to do this, so we’re only now finally getting it all sorted. As a result, I have recently become the custodian of my father’s photographs. All of them.
My dad, Tony Day (1937-2019), was a serious amateur photographer from adolescence right up to his death. He kept all his photographic images, good and bad – prints, negatives, slides, cine film, digital video tapes. On top of this, he had also received all his family’s photographs, including those taken by his father, and on top of this were all the pictures from my mother’s family. My conservative estimate is tens of thousands of images, which posed the question of what to do with them all.
The sheer volume was compounded by what one might charitably call my dad’s often cavalier attitude towards tidiness. Many of the images were loose in boxes. He had latterly begun to put his prints into albums, although he had not dealt with all of them by the time of his death. Some of these were roughly labelled, but many more were not. (I have not even begun looking at the slides or cine films yet: I see that he did make a rough catalogue index of slide boxes, but seems to have used the same numbering system more than once).
As all this stuff had arrived at my house and was filling up my spare room, I urgently needed to get it into a more immediately manageable space. The first step was to empty out the albums he had so lovingly filled, which was perhaps the oddest of the emotional pangs during this process.
I initially worked to separate the prints into three very rough top-level categories: Family; Friends; and Other. The latter was ridiculously unwieldy, but a necessary starting point just to work out what I was looking at. The rolls were rarely thematic, but a sequential record of what he saw and found interesting: he loved churches, stained glass, birds, plants, caravans, landscapes, cars, things he found curious, odd or funny …
His curiosity, as a very serious practising Anglican, about people and their religious and other practices threw up some surprises for me. Here were morris dancers, giants, processions. (The morris dancers were my fault: he had given me a lift to the Tenterden Folk Festival, and photographed the passing troupes while I was giving a talk). His intimate knowledge of churches and church life meant there were a lot of photographs of craftsmen engaged in church renovations. Here (somewhat to my alarm, given his occasional lack of worldiness and general conservatism) were gable end murals in Northern Ireland. It may have been simple curiosity, but the result was ethnographic evidence.
|Free Derry Corner. Photo: Tony Day|
Yet how to understand the pictures?
I cannot say that his curiosity at what he saw was leading him to investigate directly the practices he photographed (although this is complicated, as he was also thinking deeply about religious observance and meaning), so many of the pictures are probably best treated as discreet records rather than part of any inquiry on his part. This is compounded by the somewhat random character of his taking of photographs, further randomised by the distribution of the prints. I do not know, for example, in which French town the Chinese parade seen here was taking place.
|Chinese New Year(?) procession, France. Photo: Tony Day|| |
Investigation of the images would require treating them as contextless ethnography to some extent, although that does an injustice to his inner life, his unstated thinking. I have to start from that position simply because the context is not available to me. From my knowledge of him, he could have commented on most near any picture if asked, but would not have put this together into any overall record. Yet his obvious love of xeroxlore, which ties to the images he found amusing, obviously fits into a broader, more consistent outlook.
|2010 well dressing. Photo: Tony Day|
|Buxton (?) well, 2010. Photo: Tony Day|
I am starting slowly, therefore, with individual images, like the ones here. I may not be able to put him back into many of them yet, but I can start by making sense of some of what he saw. One of the dressed wells, for example, is conveniently dated 2010, so the other photo from the same roll of a trip to the Peak District is clearly from the same time. The town centre dressing is, I believe, in Buxton, outside the NatWest on Spring Gardens. Funnily enough the other one, which should be the easier to identify, currently eludes me. If anyone can help, I’d appreciate it. Because making sense of this stuff is what I’m going to be doing for a while, I think.