Every Picture Tells a Story
This phrase came to mind a few weeks ago when I was browsing through a box of assorted photographs in a charity shop near Bolton. All the photos were black-and-white: or should I say grey-and-grey, since the passing years had weakened the contrast in the images.
Some of the pictures had dates or names written on the back, but the majority were ruthlessly anonymous. Snapshots of landscapes, children holding hands, a horse in a field, two elderly women wearing large hats and clutching dainty handbags. I felt a twinge of melancholy at the idea that these people were now dead, and possibly forgotten.
I was about to catch the shopkeeper’s eye and ask about the price for some of the photographs, but he was busy on the phone, so I wandered down the shop. And I was suddenly struck by the phrase ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’; we cannot see a photograph, or the view from a car window, or a well-dressed businessman running towards the ticket barrier at a railway station without starting to construct a narrative to explain the situation before us.
And if it so happens that the people in the picture (or, as they would say in Germany, the people on the picture) have passed away and been forgotten, we should take the opportunity to create a story to let them live again in our imagination.
‘How much are these pictures?’ I asked, gesturing towards the box of photos. The guy behind the counter paused for a moment; perhaps I was an expert in local history or a secret antiques dealer who had spotted something of staggering value in his collection. But then he realised that this was too absurd, and merely said ‘Oh, fifty pence each. Or three for a pound.’
There were a few of the pictures I found interesting, but in the end I settled for just one: a photograph showing a young girl standing by a window. She is holding a book – hardback, it looks like, closed as if she had just taken it from, or was about to return it to the shelf.
Was this a book that she herself had written, or was it given her as a prize for some sporting or academic achievement?
The image is very faintly softened, so it is impossible to determine the title of the book or the exact age of the girl; her hairstyle could place her anywhere between 1972 and 1986. Someone had creased the photo, putting it into a pocket perhaps, and a large white scar ran diagonally across the image. I decided that I might arrange to have this crack repaired at some point in the future.
I decided that the girl’s name was Melissa, and that she was 24 years old. And the book was a birthday present from her uncle; it had been given to him several years earlier, and he had never bothered reading it. He wanted to give her a ten-pound note (which was a remarkably generous sum in the mid-seventies) so he decided that, instead of merely putting the note with her card in an envelope, it would be more impressive if she were to discover this money as an unexpected bonus when reading the book.
I imagined the conversation in Melissa’s household that morning:
‘Mel, there’s a parcel just arrived for you. Quite heavy – were you expecting anything?’
‘Of course, Mother; it IS my birthday you know, but it seems a bit careless of whoever-it-is to send me a gold bar through the post!’
They laughed gently, hoping that the neighbours would glance though the window and see how carefree and happy they both were. Melissa unwrapped the parcel; ‘Oh God, it’s another book!’
Her mother frowned; ‘Don’t tell me, Uncle Trevor again?’ Melissa held the book end-on so that her mother could read the title printed on the spine. ‘The Odyssey of Homer’ she announced wearily. ‘I suppose I’d better call him on the telephone to say thank you for a delightful present.’ It was a standing joke that Uncle Trevor refused to have a phone installed in his house. He proclaimed that speech was frivolous, and that only when people put pen to paper were they being honest.
‘Now, now, young missy’ retorted her mother. ‘It’s very good of him to remember your birthday. Write him a note and I’ll post it for you when I go to work.’ And as Melissa bounded up the stairs to write her thank-you letter, her brother Peter came in through the kitchen and gave his usual greeting:
‘Hi Mom, what’s for tea?’
His mother scowled faintly. ‘How did it go?’ she asked.
‘Oh, great. We managed to get pictures of it in a country lane and in a derelict warehouse.’ Peter and his friend Mark had recently purchased a Triumph Herald which they were gradually bringing back to life, and had spent the morning taking photographs of the car. He glanced down at the frame counter on his camera; ‘Oh, I think I’ve got four or five shots left. Shall I get one of you?
Just then, Melissa came downstairs holding the letter. ‘Can you put his address on please, Mom? I’ve lost it again. Oh, hi Pete’ she said, ‘Are you gonna take some pictures of me then?’
‘Tell you what’ said her mother, ‘Let Peter take a photo of you holding that book. Clive will be really pleased, we can send the snap in his birthday card next month…’ She emphasised the ‘next month’ just enough to remind the children that they had forgotten his birthday the previous year.
So Melissa grabbed the book and went to stand by the window, while her brother made a great fuss about exposures and f-stops, until he was satisfied that the three pictures he had taken would probably be okay. ‘Should take about two weeks to come back from the chemist when they’re printed’ he said.
And I never learned what happened to Melissa, or Peter, or their mother; the photo ended up in a carrier bag with assorted letters and Christmas cards. Three years later, I was preparing to move house, and came across this collection of letters. I was leafing through them, trying to decide which items were important enough to keep and which could be thrown out.
And then without warning I found myself looking at Melissa and her book again. For a moment I couldn’t remember why I had the picture, or who she was; but then it all came flooding back, and I was disappointed that I hadn’t got round to having the photo repaired. So I rang a friend who worked in a college studio, and asked his advice on what to do about the crack in the picture.
‘Oh, we get those all the time’ he said. ‘Just send it in, and I can get it fixed.’ So I posted him the picture with a note explaining that it wasn’t an important family picture but just a personal curiosity.
Two weeks later, I went to the studio to visit my mate Graham. ‘That photo with the white crack’ he said ‘exactly where did you find it?’
I explained the background to the picture – the story I had concocted about the unknown individual and her family. He invited me to look at a series of digital prints he had made, where he had copied the grey colour from either side of the white crack and used it to fill in the defect.
‘Oh, that’s great!’ I said, impressed by how smoothly he had erased the white scar.
But look at this. He called up a set of images on the computer screen. ‘This is your original photo; I was trying to get a better control on the grey scale either side of that crack. So I turned up the magnifier, like so…’
And as he clicked through the series of pictures, the white crack became larger and larger, then suddenly it filled the screen, with individual fibres visible like thick white ropes.
‘And when you blow the picture up this big, the grains of silver become visible, so it doesn’t actually help you to match the colour on the actual picture. But there was something odd about your photo.’
He clicked a button and the screen filled with a hexagonal grid, like a honeycomb. Some of the cells were filled with small black circles, others were predominantly white.
‘So these are grains of silver?’ I asked.
‘I’ve never seen anything like this before’ he said, ‘normally you would expect to see a random scattering of dark patches on a pale background. But this kind of organised structure…’ his voice tailed off in bewilderment.