Images That Hurt Too Much

Image from THTK (Too Hard To Keep). Via

This morning on the photography site PetaPixel, I learned about a online collection called THTK (short for Too Hard to Keep), curated by Jason Lazarus, an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago.

The story link is here, but a caution: Although most of it is not graphic, the material is definitely disturbing. 

Lazarus collects images that people can’t bear to live with anymore. In some the pain is obvious —  a building falling to the wrecking ball, a family at the bedside of a desperately ill relative. Others disturb by implication — scenes of cluttered, chaotic rooms hinting at some offstage crisis.

Why do we take photos, why do we keep them?

Maybe some images should never be made at all. (Personally I will never think it’s a good idea to photograph an open coffin at a wake. I don’t care if the Victorians did it. I bet some Victorians didn’t like it, either.)

Yet even as I write that, I realize that painful images can be an act of bearing witness, fulfilling important human and historical needs. And even ostensibly happy images hold potential pain as life unfolds.

But what do you think? Have you ever possessed a photo that harmed your peace of mind? And should it be kept, or destroyed, or passed on to someone else?



Stop Snickering In The Bread Aisle, You

Bread and milk before the snowstorm: the ultimate panic-buying cliché. I enjoy the jokes as much as anyone. A short while ago, it looked like we here in New Jersey were going to be smacked with a Weather Event right on top of Thanksgiving. Here’s me on Facebook, yukking it up:


Now I’ve started thinking more about that pre-storm supermarket rush. “Why is everyone so uptight about the bread and milk?” we clever people ask.

But this is also a serious question. Why is everyone so uptight? What chord is being played in our cultural memory?

Dedicated reporter that I am, I flexed my fingers and began Googling. Very quickly, sharp insights piled up, like: “Because we are stupid,” and “LOL.” I was, as ever, impressed by the discourse, but refused to be intimidated. Time to dig deeper, into the snowstorms of the past.

The deep, dark past.


Read the rest of this entry »

History Reconsidered, Via Newsreel

Another modern methodology story:

It was 100 years ago this month that a suffragist named Emily Wilding Davison surged onto the track at Epsom at the Derby, throwing herself under the hooves of the King’s racehorse and sustaining fatal injuries in a suicidal bid to draw attention to the fight for women’s voting rights.

Or did she?

Many historians have argued that Davison was not suicidal — there was a return train ticket in her pocket, and she had made plans to go on holiday with her sister shortly after the Derby. In that case, what was she doing? Some have argued that Davison merely intended to dash across the track waving a suffragist banner, and she misjudged the timing. Others believed she intended to attach a flag to King George V’s horse, Anmer.

But that newfangled development, the newsreel, was very much in place at the 1913 Derby. As Guardian reporter Vanessa Thorpe writes, there were three newsreel cameras rolling. Today’s sophisticated imaging technology, plus fresh, cleaned-up images from the original nitrate stock, literally brought the event into clearer focus, strongly suggesting that Davison, while on a very risky mission, wasn’t intending to kill herself.

One of the wonderful things about new techniques like digital film analysis is the reminder that history can be a rather fluid thing. The new things we learn have the ability to firm up the outlines of established pictures, or shift them into new shapes.

Emily Davison (at left) and jockey Herbert Jones on the ground at the Derby in Epsom, 1913. Hulton Archive photo reproduced on

Emily Davison (at left) and jockey Herbert Jones on the ground at the Derby in Epsom, 1913. Hulton Archive photo reproduced on

Paris in Color (c. 1909-30)

These vintage views of Paris are breathtaking.

They also are a particularly lovely and haunting reminder of how our imagined view of the past can be limited in ways we don’t even think about. It’s been mentioned before with regard to vintage color photography — and I really think it’s true —  that the dominance of black-and-white historic images has us unconsciously assuming that the world of our ancestors was sort of gray and grimy. When we’re lucky enough to find well-preserved color images from the turn of the century, it truly feels like a peering through a window into a lost universe.

Interesting, If Creepy: ‘Invisible’ Mothers

Yes, moms are present in these vintage photographs of babies and toddlers, holding them steady for the photographer, but hidden under afghans or rugs to make it look as if the grownup isn’t actually there. I spied a pair of trouser-clad legs in one of the photos, so it looks as if there were invisible dads, too.

Happy Father’s Day

My dad, circa 1927 -- and what was that thing he was standing on, anyway?

A quick nostalgic Father’s Day detour here, with what I think is the earliest photo we have of my father, Peter Haigney. Not to say there might not be an earlier picture of him somewhere. But this is the earliest one that we had among those rescued from the Evil Magnetic Photo Albums. It was taken in South Brooklyn when he was probably 3 years old, which would mean about 1927.

The full picture is a wonderful shot of Dad and some of his siblings standing on a wooden, platform-like structure. This structure defied explanation for many years, until recently, when a friend who saw it said she thought it might well be the entrance to a coal cellar, having remembered a similar set-up at her grandparents’ Brooklyn house. (Thanks, Karen!)

Dad died of a heart attack when I was 23, so Father’s Day went on hiatus for me personally for a while, until the birth of my first child. Meanwhile I lived it vicariously through other fathers in my life — my brother, my friends and of course, my father-in-law, all of whom got me in the habit of thinking about Father’s Day in broader terms.

Sure, it’s a day to miss the fathers who aren’t here anymore to pretend great joy at the latest bad necktie gift. But it’s also nice to send good wishes to all the dads out there who, I hope, are enjoying the day, whatever color the necktie turned out to be. Happy Father’s Day, guys.

Old-Photo Questions, Google-Style Answers

Oh, those wacky Internets. They can do genealogy harm. (See: Online Tree Synthesis, Or How I Traced My Lineage Back To The Goddess Athena In Only Two Weeks. Fictional title. I hope.) But they can also do great good.

Plain old Googling, for example, helped me tease out a context for some World War II photos of my father’s — including the great dog picture I posted a few days ago.

The pictures date from my father’s Coast Guard service.  All I know about them is what my mother told me: They were taken in Europe by my father at some point. There is no identifying information on the backs. They’re a bit of a mystery. But a  few weeks ago I decided this was an unscientific and downright wimpy attitude. Time to take a systematic look at these old pictures.

Some of the pictures just made me smile.

I knew they were taken at Le Havre – brilliant deduction, this! (Note the tongue-in-cheek mileage markers.)

And I noticed that the pretty tower in the background of the photo with the dog looked the same as the tower in this picture, below.

Also I noticed the big “61” on the ship behind the rubble in the shot below.

Here’s what I found when I went looking for clues about these visual hints.

Clue: Source (And What It Told Me)
The “61” on the side of the ship.
  1. Dad’s Coast Guard discharge papers, which mention that he served on the U.S.S. Monticello.
  2. A history of ships named U.S.S. Monticello, available as a Google Document. There were three – one built in 1858 that served during the Civil War; Dad’s ship from World War II, No. AP 61; and LSD-35, which sailed the South Pacific during SEATO operations in the 1950s and 60s and did service in Vietnam.
The Le Havre sign.
  1. Again, Dad’s discharge papers. They noted “yes” in the space that asked “Foreign service in World War II?”
  2. This .pdf file from the Coast Guard, detailing Monticello’s  comings and goings during World War II.  Monticello journeyed to Le Havre during my father’s time aboard, arriving on Nov. 17, 1945.
The tower on the partially bombed-out building. There’s a cross on the spire of the square tower.
  1. Probably a major church, right? So I googled “Le Havre” and “cathedral” and got the Wikipedia entry for Cathedrale Notre-Dame Du Havre.
  2. And here’s my tower, happily rebuilt from the wartime rubble.

My dad died when I was 23, long before I got serious about genealogy and, sadly, before I felt comfortable talking to him about his past. So these bits and pieces of information are oddly comforting. As I write up my notes on this album, it’s nice to be able to say something more than “Dad’s photos, taken someplace during World War Two.”