What We Remember
- Found Objects and Robert
Bob Rogers, a photographer and writer, reflects on how his father used photography to create a fictional version of family history.
My father, Robert, was an amateur photographer. Naturally, when I was growing up I was interested in taking pictures, too, and from time to time he would let me snap off a couple of shots with his Zeiss Ikon Contaflex camera. He used Kodachrome slide film and would most often take pictures when we traveled. When he first offered me the chance, my natural inclination was to make an image of a view that I had seen and liked.
“Not so fast,” Robert admonished me. He explained that anybody could take an empty view, but that it was a pointless waste of film to do so—just buy a postcard and save the film if you wanted a keepsake. No, he said, the point of being able to make your own photographs was to have the power to include some familiar person in the picture. He then proceeded to insert himself into the scene. With this small, but important correction he knew he had made my resulting photograph both “unique” and “memorable”.
One day in 1956, in the summer of my eighth year, we were taking a walk along a country road. We passed a house where a small boat on a trailer was parked in the driveway. Being urban dwellers we admired both the boat and the fantasies of fun and outdoor adventure it inspired.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have one,” I said.
“Here,” he said, handing me the camera in its brown leather case. He started to walk over to the boat. I was very upset; it was not our boat; it was trespassing; we would get into trouble. He dismissed my concerns, and said that nothing would happen. He propped himself against the gunwale of the boat in the manner of Nineteenth Century photos of gentlemen in top hats resting their elbows on a pile of classic books they never read, stacked spines out, on a short, stage-prop Greek column.
“Take my picture,” he said. I did it quickly, stealing away the spirit of this stranger’s boat and preserving it in a tiny prison cell of celluloid and colored chemicals. When I was done my father returned to my side, took the camera and snapped shut the leather cover that protected the expensive Zeiss.
“See,” he said. “Nothing to be afraid of.” In this spirit he would regularly pose me with tennis-playing acquaintances, racket in hand by the net, looking uncomfortable on a court dedicated to a game I was never taught to play; holding golf clubs I had no idea how to use; on the backs of polo ponies I couldn’t ride, owned by wealthy friends during an afternoon visit to their New Jersey estates.
At the time I had no idea why he wanted such pictures. He never wanted to own a boat. Neither he nor I could ride a horse or play tennis. Perhaps he was driven by the same impulse expressed by people incapable of flight themselves, to keep captive birds in cages and to take delight in their mournful chirpings. But I think now, too, it was because he perceived that these poses were the stage sets that defined as well as occupied members of his social class, whose ranks he was born into but from which he had become tragically estranged. His flight to America and from Nazi plundering had separated him from the family wealth that for generations had enabled this birthright to be reified.
He understood, too, that the photographic image created its own reality: in the world of that image, he was again a boat owner, the wealthy patrician with stables and horses, a white-clad tennis buff, and he and his scion members of the leisured class depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald novels. And the picture created by the “objective” lens, certified the reality of this claim. If anyone doubted his social status, they needed only seek confirmation in the testimony of his “New World” family album.