The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

June 9, 2013

Jacque Gage: Book celebrates past photos, warns about future

JOPLIN, Mo. — For today's review, I chose a book I suggested for purchase by the library. There are a few  problems with that: I do not remember suggesting the purchase. I didn't even remember the book existed. I still do not remember where I heard about the book.

But when it came up that I had a hold on this book, I dutifully checked it out, wondering what in the world it was.

The book is strangely compelling, titled "Talking Pictures: Images and Messages Rescued from the Past." It is by Ransom Riggs, author of the New York Times bestseller, "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children".

Riggs has an unusual hobby. When he was young, his grandmother would drag him from place to place on antiquing expeditions. This wasn't very interesting for a 13-year-old boy, but he discovered an unusual coping mechanism.

He found snapshots of people: "Photos of strangers, of weddings and funerals, family vacations, backyard forts, and first days of school, all torn from once-treasured albums and dumped into plastic bins for strangers to paw through: communal graves of a sort, the anonymous dead shuffled into ersatz families of the unwanted."

He wondered why people would give up once-treasured photos, and why on earth anyone would buy them. He began to understand as a photo of a girl caught his eye. He bought that photo, and she was his fantasy girlfriend. Months later he took the photo from the frame and found an inscription on the back that would haunt him for a long time. (No, I won't spoil it and tell you the inscription.)

Many years later he began collecting old photographs, but only those with interesting inscriptions on the back. "Judging only by the front side, it's as banal as snapshots get: a wall, a sign, and some bushes. It's flat; it's boring; it's not even in focus! Flip it over, though, and the picture is transformed."

"Talking Pictures" is a book of the pictures Riggs has found. Divided into sections such as Clowning Around, Love and Marriage, Hide This Please and others, the book shows both sides of these found photos. They evoke a gamut of emotions. You'll chuckle, you'll roll your eyes, you'll sigh and you may even cry.

Although it has 365 pages, it reads very quickly. You will find yourself going back through the book to take another look at the pictures and to read the stories again.

Riggs ends the book with a warning. It's something I hadn't considered, but he is right on target. In today's electronic world we no longer write much in the traditional sense. We also no longer take real pictures.

We take hundreds and thousands of digital pictures, but their essence is of "ones and zeros, rarely printed, stored on chips and drives that are easily damaged or erased, susceptible to heat, magnets, wear, and obsolescence."

He warns future generations may never find our histories through tangible pictures we've left behind. We are pitching and destroying old photos as though there is a never-ending supply of this sort of history, but we are not leaving new ones for future generations.

His hope is that his book "inspires a few people to take a second look at Great-aunt Susie's old pictures before they fall victim to an aggressive spring cleaning. Before you throw anything out, be sure to glance at the back."

It makes one think. I've destroyed my share of ancient snapshots. What treasures will I leave for my family both to discover and treasure or to destroy? Or will I keep them all digitized so no one, not even I, will be able to enjoy them some day?

"Talking Pictures" is available in print at Joplin Public Library. Or, at least it will be after I've had a chance to look at these pictures again.


Jacque Gage is director of the Joplin Public Library.

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