Monday, August 23, 2010


Today is the birthdate of my long-dead mother and her very alive identical twin sister, who turns eighty-nine this year. They were born several months early in a log cabin in the Bulkley Valley, thirty miles or so east of Smithers. Some kind of tenacity and luck meant they both survived their rocky start and grew tall and strong...

As on other anniversary days of various kinds, of course my head turns to the passing of time, the where we are now in relation to where we have been or where we might be in time future. It's the old pattern of wondering about past-present-future that starts I think as soon as we are old enough to have any concept of those "categories", fluid and ever-shifting as they are.

Time past can come alive sometimes, and amaze us. It does for me in an amazing gallery of photos from old greater Russia. I mean by that Russia proper and also Georgia, Dagestan, Armenia, Uzbekistan, and more. The photos were taken before the first war, around 1910. They're on this website (and here's the address in case the link doesn't work:

Do go and have a long look. Seeing the Armenian women, of course we wonder whether they were killed in the genocide or escaped to perhaps Georgia or Syria; seeing Dagestan I think about all the fighting there has been in that region, and wonder whether the descendants of the people in the photos are still there. Have they seen these photos? Probably not, is my guess.

The view of Tbilisi shows a small city by a river, not the sprawling messier place it has of course become. But you can see the old baths, the churches, the winding river, and get a feel for the place. And the power of the Emir of Bukhara is palpable, as he sits formally for his portrait, dressed in a gorgeous blue robe.

Mostly we glimpse the past in our mind's eye, stimulated by the words of a novel or a passing scent that evokes another time and place, or a tune that transports us. So it is astonishing to have these images, captured so carefully by a photographer who did his best to make colour images in a time when colour film was not available, by shooting through filters, three takes of the same shot, then combining them. The article that accompanies the gallery explains the technique a little.

There's a respect for the moment in this work that is all too easy to lose in theis era of easy digital shooting. I find the images haunting, and the idea of this photo project awe-inspiring. It reminds me of the movie footage shot in the late 1940's in small Ontario towns - another project of documentation that honours its subjects. And now, so many years later, these images and films, documenting time and people that are firmly in time past, are like a gift handed to us across the years...

What will we leave for future generations to find and marvel at?

1 comment:

naomi said...

And there's another place to look at old photos, these from the late thirties in the US, amazing, astonishing, humbling!
here's the link:

(sorry you'll have to cut nd paste it into your address bar)