Monday, June 25, 2012

Who Owns a Photograph?

When I take home a vintage photograph from an antiques fair, I am filled with questions. They are not unlike the questions I asked myself the summer's day that I drove home with a recently stray cat from an SPCA shelter in Concord, New Hampshire:

What life did I interrupt by stepping forward and saying "I will take it"...

Whose earlier claims of ownership did I presume I could actually cancel...

What could I do to make a home for something that until recently had had another home, another routine of days, another geography...

In exchange for so little -- a verbal pledge, a modest sum of dollars -- I emerged in each case with sole responsibility for something in whose creation I had played no part.

Ownership is nothing simple.

For example, I am at the mercy of the man pictured in this photograph. I do not know whether or not he had known ahead of time that the picture was being taken. I do not know whether he was happy for someone later to have a reminder of that day he had sat on the hillside, weapon at rest on his knees. That man has a claim to this photograph that I could never presume to contest.

Likewise I am at the mercy of the person who took the photograph. That individual is the creator. Artistry of some kind accounts for the slant of the landscape, the stand of the trees against the sky, the way the tints and colors of the man who is sitting with his weapon almost blend into the rocks.

I am even indebted to the woman who sold me the photograph. There had to have been from the first a willingness on her part to give up all claims to the image. Why else display it? Then there had been a moment of sizing me up, taking my measure as it were. I would have had no recourse if she had wanted to wait for another offer.

Lastly I owe something to the person years from now whose job it will be to sort among the possessions of my life and determine what to make of this image. No testimony of provenance will make it appear valuable in any public way. There is a chance that underneath the sorting and weighing there will come to someone an interior question: "What could I do to make a home for something that until now has had this other home, this other routine of days, this geography..."

There is a chance that a relative or friend will say to the others, "I will take it."

Thursday, June 21, 2012


Fifteen years ago I was in Rome on this twenty-first day of June. The trip had been my first chance to know the city, to walk its streets, to take in its antiquity in great gulps.

I stayed in a guesthouse run by an American order of nuns, and my room was very small. Each night I lay without airconditioning atop the sheets. It would take hours before the one open window provided a change of air. Nightly I got to fall asleep to the sounds of a neighborhood of families ending their day.

I did not need it any other way. I barely knew it could be.

Rome was old and I was new.

If there was heat, there was a shower attached to my room and I could wash and cool off. My wet hair lying on a white pillowcase, I let the strange Roman hours move over my room. Church bells rang.

New England heat has me these days remembering how to slow down, how to stop thinking, how to let the oldest rhythms of a New Orleans childhood take over.

I remember to water my flowers.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


I understood that the long, low piece of Roseville pottery was part of what was called a mantle set. I own the other two pieces that belong to the set, flanking vases in the same distinctive blue. The family assumption was that they had been a wedding gift to my parents in 1935.

Among the oldest items in our home when I was growing up, the odd pottery used to strike me as undeniably adult. Only adults would create, sell, purchase and display items that were clearly devoid of day-to-day utility.

We never touched them.

There were no stories told of them either. They remained in the succession of my parents' homes without a history that any of us knew. They were like the young adulthood of my parents before any of us children were born to make them -- finally -- Ma and Pop.

Saturday morning I accepted the invitation of a work friend to go with her to an antiques fair.  She remembered to bring a checkbook and emerged from the two hours with twin panels of stained glass. The colors in the simple design are predominantly amber and blue and green and are destined, she told me with obvious excitement, to hang in her bedroom windows.

I was able to venture safely from vendor to vendor and know that there was little I would purchase with the thirty dollars in my wallet.

What I had come for, it became apparent, was not a purchase, though. Even more valuable, I got a glimpse of that Roseville blue again. This time it was a jardiniere and matching pedestal.

I stared.

So there really could have been a world in which my parents had been young adults. And it had been a beautiful world.