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Editor's Note: Sad fascination with forgotten photos

Published: Tuesday, June 4, 2013 9:40 a.m. CDT

I spent some time last weekend at one of my favorite places – the flea market.

I love the randomness of the flea market. Next to a nun selling pastries is a lady hawking Avon, just down from a carpenter selling reclaimed furniture and an artist selling sculptures. 

Some, if not many, of the vendors are there every month. There’s the one we call Fossil Guy, whose items for sale include a bizzare array of animal artifacts, battlefield memorabilia and ancient items like Roman coins and jewelry. Then there’s the lady who sells jewelry made of silver spoons and the booth with artistic wall decor made from scraps of old license plates.

I could go on. And on.

If you have ever been to a flea market, you know that there is a lot of emphasis on vintage and antique goods. Some of these have been remade into something new, others have been somehow restored or refurbished, and many are sold as is.

As I walk past these booths of vintage items, I tend to be drawn to the photos of nameless people from eras past. They make me feel at once fascinated and sad. Portraits are meant to be keepsakes, something that endures after we are gone. But when no one remembers the person in the portrait, what is it then?

Often, these are loose photos or tin types, or single pictures encased in those folders photography studios used long ago. But last year, I came across a complete family album.

There were no names that I saw in the album; the pictures were uncaptioned, and when I peeked at the back of one, it gave no identifiers.

I leafed through the leather-bound book and, based on the clothes and cars in the pictures, mentally dated it to roughly the mid-1940s to mid-1950s.

Here was a young couple posing outside a little house. Here was a group of friends, laughing in front of some rocky landscape that looked like the Southwest.

Yep, there they were again, next to a sign welcoming them to Arizona.

Here was the young wife, a few years older and cuddling a baby. Here, the baby with older children.

A birthday party. Two candles on the cake.

Christmas morning. Wrapping paper everywhere.

It felt almost voyeuristic, this intimate look at the life of people I didn’t know. It made me sad to think that their album had ended up here, $15 for the lot, price negotiable.

Was there no surviving relative, no friend, nobody who could put names to these faces, who wanted to keep these memories? No one to whom this book mattered?

It appears not.

I don’t know what will happen to the album. Maybe someone will buy it as a piece of nostalgia. Maybe the pictures will be removed and used in some artsy collage.

In my fantasy, I imagine someone casually picking up the book and opening the cover. Their face grows still as they turn the pages, and their eyes widen as they turn them faster, recognizing a house or a face.

“That’s my grandma!” they cry.

They buy the book, worth so much more than $15, and the forgotten are remembered.

But it’s only a fantasy.

Enjoy your MidWeek.

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