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Mining A Family Photo Album


While traveling in the Pacific Northwest, I adopted another family's photo album.  Our car needed a minor repair and I passed the time by browsing in a junk shop in Port Angeles, WA. I spent all of my time slowly sifting through a box of old photographs, some from the late 19th century, and others from the early 2oth century. Family portraits mostly. Some studio shots. Many curious candids. Intending to purchase a precious few, the shopkeeper suggested, 'five dollars for the lot.'  I remember feeling guilty for acquiring these treasures for so little. Then again, maybe this box had been sitting around for years with no patrons in sight. Maybe the shopkeeper felt relieved to finally rid herself of the dusty bin. 


This box of photographs has always made me uneasy.  Along with the photographs, the box also contained clippings of obituaries, a medical record for a 4-year-old girl, a 1930's program for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, presented by the Junior Class of the High School in Danville, CA., and a yellowed newspaper clipping explaining the origin of Hot Cross Buns. The box also held a perfect lock of a child's brown curly hair. 


How did this box of photographs suffer the fate of abandonment in a junk shop?  How did these family photographs, these memento mori of long departed ancestors, become severed from the memories they held? Who wrote the names on the backs of the photographs, in ballpoint pen, clearly so many years after the pictures were taken?  This, an unsatisfying attempt to hold onto the minimal fragments of memory on the backs of the pictures? 


This little I know:

Flossy Harrison was 40 years old in 1918.  Her maiden name was Richards.  Flossy had at least three brothers, Lachlan M. Richards, Guy Richards and Bryling Richards. She married Neil Harrison who was a contractor in California and then the Manager of the Contra Costa County Walnut Growers Association. The 1936 walnut crop was a bumper crop. They lived in Danville, Alamo, and San Jose, CA. Their daughter Virginia played the role of Lady Bracknell in the Oscar Wilde play. Their son Bernard died at 14 years old when his automobile overturned. There was a child who had beautiful brown curly hair that, once cut, someone deemed worthy of saving in a little envelop, tied with a thin white string.


This temporary installation consists of four cloth panels, 44x84 inches that were hung in the windows of a gallery and illuminated with the natural window light.  I incorporated reproductions of dozens of found photographs of varying sizes. 

Mary Ann McQuillan

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