My family has taken photographs of themselves since the mid-1800s when cameras were invented, and most of these pictures have survived to be passed down to my generation. We have a reverence for history, and for family.
I have been scanning these photos to preserve digital copies. One day I was scanning a series of pictures from the early 1900s, all posed portraits, yellowed with age or by intention long ago, and all in elaborate paper photo covers embossed with the name of the photographer. The colors are muted gray and brown and beige, and some of them have ornate embossed borders and frames, entirely different from today’s proliferation of colorful digital photos, most not even printed, let alone framed for display.
I became aware of a certain mystique that surrounds old photographs. On the one hand they are ephemeral, being made of paper that is prone to rip and disintegrate, and printed with chemicals that deteriorate and eventually become unintelligible, and on the other hand they represent something solid and rooted and long lasting—the connection to family over the centuries. These old photos impart a kind of magic to their subjects. I never fail to look deeply into their faces, to wonder what their lives were like, what they thought about, what secrets they were keeping. They become real to me, but tantalizingly far away.
I began to wonder whether I could make use of this mystique to send a message. Being a photographer myself, and being deeply concerned about climate change and our civilization’s disregard for the natural world, I saw a possibility. I thought that these photo covers might give a little of their magic to other subjects. What would a flower or a bird portrait look like? What if people could see the natural world in a new light, and realize that these things, at least, are not gone, and we can appreciate them in real life?
I went through my photographs and chose portraits of natural things that reminded me of the old portraits, and adjusted them in Photoshop to fit in the old frames.
So this exhibit was born. I call it Ancestors and Other Kinfolk because I see human beings and the natural world as interrelated and interdependent and as having a long and complex historical relationship. We could not exist without these things. We evolved with them, and they support our lives, as do our own closer kin.
Rebecca Reid is a photographer who retired to become a farmer, but somehow can’t seem to stop working with photographs. She worked for many years as the staff photographer for the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in South Amherst, melding her two passions: the natural world and visual images. She is always looking for another way to strengthen people’s relationship to the environment, and this exhibit is another attempt. She lives with her husband, Michael Dover and a family of farm-mates on a small farm in Leverett.