Every Picture Tells A Story by Chris Green
I bought my first SLR camera, a Canon EX I think it was, in 1975. I had been asked to take some shots of Ibiza. Ibiza wasn’t chav central back then. It was a magic white island populated by bohemians and artists. The photos came out well and I used a couple of them for promotion of a progressive rock band that I was involved with. I carried on taking pictures through the seventies and even invested in a darkroom. As time passed though I became distracted by other things and my interest in photography became more peripheral.
I continued snapping of course, but I tended to do nothing with the results. Over the years I had a few pictures blown up for display, and a few more made their way into family albums, but the rest got stored, unsorted, in the back of a series of cupboards or in attics in various houses that I lived in through my serial relationships. The task of sorting through them became more and more daunting until eventually I didn’t consider it anymore. Last month I retired and Rachel and I started to talk about moving house. We have been together twelve years and most of this time we have lived here in Maple Park. Rachel made me watch a life laundry program and said we needed to clear out the attic. What she meant was I needed to clear out the attic.
A week later she reminds me by subtly leaving the loft ladder down and going out. I resolve to get the cardboard boxes of photo wallets down and try to organise them. I discover straight away that this is a time consuming exercise, but I find it cathartic. My photos suggest that I have had a good life. Admittedly, you do not take many photos of grey clouds over Grimsby or blizzards in Swindon. Also, unless you want the camera broken over your head, you don’t tend to take photos of your partner during a domestic dispute or on a bad hair day. In short you do not take think to photos unless you are feeling good. But I have been fortunate. There are some brilliant moments captured on film.
Here’s one of Sammi and I in Colombia. In Barranquilla on the coast. At the 1996 Carnival. Sammi was half my age. God knows why we went there. To get away from Saskia maybe. Saskia and I had just split up and she was in a dangerous state of mind. There was no telling what she might do. But, back then Colombia was probably the most dangerous place on Earth. And we had our luggage stolen at El Dorado airport in Bogota. Did I really have hair that short? ….. There are some here from a wedding in the 1970s. The shirt collars are like weapons. And in this one I’ve got a huge thick beard. Mid 1980s ….. I don’t remember going to the FA cup final. I’ve always hated football. Life is full of surprises. And hundreds here of my exhibition of paintings at that downtown gallery. I’m glad I always insisted on 7 by 5 prints and used good quality Kodak or Fuji film; the colours have endured.
There are several sets here of Tangiers. With Bob Mohammed, Ahmed and Ali. I think those were the names. If not they were similar. God, it’s so long ago, I can hardly remember who I went with. 1983, it says on the back. It must have been Julia. Before James and Dean were born. Yes, here Julia is on the bicycle that we used as transport up and down the beach for provisions. The bike belonged to Ali, I recall. Bob Mohammed and the others worked at a beach hotel, but it was closed for renovation and they had nothing to do all day, so they became our Morocco guides. Where did all that come from? I haven’t thought about any of it for years. It’s amazing what you can remember with a visual stimulus. Suddenly I can put the details to the story like the flick of a switch. We spent two weeks on the beach with the sun beating down and the Atlantic rolling in. We drank mint tea and our Moroccan guides kept coming up with stronger and stronger hash. I suspect they wanted to get into Julia’s pants. And she always was a bit of a flirt.
Rachel comes in and sees that every inch of the floor is covered with piles of photos.
‘Glad to see you are getting on with it,’ she says. It was a good idea getting you to watch Life Laundry.’ Does she imagine that I haven’t noticed that she has just come home loaded down with shopping bags, Cath Kidston, Monsoon, Habitat, HomeSense. I can see them lined up in the hall. There is no point in mentioning this. More is less, Rachel will say, or something equally baffling to justify her purchases.
‘It may take quite a while,’ I say. ‘There are more than I thought.’
‘You have to be brutal,’ she says, bringing the kitchen bin into the room.
‘I have already thrown some out,’ I say.
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she says. I think she secretly feels guilty. She has been talking so much about clearing out, about selling things at car boots and on ebay, but this has so far remained at the talking about stage.
Rachel goes off to play with her shopping and I continue with my sorting. I uncover a shoe box packed tightly with photos. There’s a pic of me in front of the Here’s Johnny mural in Berlin, one of a camel race along the Champs Elysees, that can’t be right, perhaps it’s not the Champs Elysees, perhaps they are not camels. Here’s one of Saskia standing in the doorway of Hitler and Son Jewelers. That was in Cyprus, I think. I wasn’t with Saskia very long. Probably a good thing really. Life was too chaotic. All the people we knew seemed to be having crises every minute of every day back in the mid 1990s. Children were shuffled around and families formed and reformed like a swap shop.
On with the show. Someone in this pic sleeping in the jib of a JCB. I can’t imagine who that might be. Where did I take that? …….. A pile of loose photos here of the Rolling Stones concert at Paris Olympia in 1982. Great one of Keith. That’s an iconic rock star photo. Attitude and poise …… James and Dean doing somersaults on the beach at Broadstairs. Strange isn’t it how James was always long and lean while Dean was always short and stocky. Here’s are some more of the children. At Euro Disney. 1990 at a guess. How did they get mixed up with the ones of Joi in the buff? Joi was much later. Joi was attractively built though. Rachel has always been jealous of her. I’d better not let her see these. But I don’t really want to bin them. Joi ran off with an Italian pasta magnate, so I guess she’s a little less trim now. ….. Did I really have hair that long? …… Who are those people dressed as circus clowns outside The Feathered Fish? You would think I would have had some method to my storage of my photos in years gone by, but there doesn’t seem to be. They are completely random. Every picture tells a story.
I regret having been so reluctant to catalogue them but now I am in a position to do what I want with them. I have executive control. I can edit my life. I can just throw away the ones I don’t want, like the ones of Joi’s hairdresser’s dog or the ones of the parquet floor at our house in Serendipity Street being laid. More importantly, I can scan the ones I like on to the computer and enhance them with PhotoShop. I have given myself an advanced tutorial and it is brilliant. Much better than the darkroom was back in the day. The sunrise at Scarborough quickly becomes the moment of creation, and the lightning over Lostwithiel looks like the end of the world. You can move people from one photo to another or cut them out completely. Perhaps I should do some of that.
It feels great to be in control like this. Why then do I have this sense of foreboding. I feel unaccountably sad. Is it like that Stephen Dunn poem? Happiness, a state you must dare not enter with hopes of staying, quicksand in the marshes, and all.
Here’s a green Harrods photo wallet. I don’t remember ever getting prints developed at Harrods. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Harrods. Department stores aren’t really my bag. The distinctive Harrods colour is still the same but this packet looks quite old. Julia might have gone there a few times. It’s probably one of Julia’s. ……. That’s strange. All the photos all seem to be of Dr. Gauguin. That looks like Lyme Regis. I don’t recall ever going to Lyme Regis. I only recognise it from that film with Jeremy Irons. There’s one of Julia with The Cobb in the background. What is Julia doing there? I’m sure I’ve never seen these. There’s one of Dr. Gauguin and Julia together. Oh my God, they are kissing in this one. Kissing. With arms around one another. And she had the front to get someone to take a photo of the two of them together, like this. And here’s another one of them in a telling embrace. …… I am in shock. What is going on? Did they just end up in the photo box by mistake? Julia and I split up in the early nineties. They must have been there for over twenty years, being transported from cupboard to attic. Perhaps she meant that I should find out.
That this happened a long time ago doesn’t seem to matter, if anything it makes it worse. I try to work out how the affair could have happened, without me realising it. ………. Julia did seem to have a disproportionate number of relatives in remarkably poor health. They would suddenly become ill, and it would be better if I didn’t go with her to see them. They only had small houses with single spare beds. Or caravans even. And she took up new hobbies with consistent regularly, canoeing, geocaching, ghost hunting, pursuits that seemed to take her way at weekends. Why hadn’t I been more observant?
These photos would have to have been before the children were born. Julia wore her hair shorter later on. In one of the photos, I notice there is a poster advert for The Marine Theatre. The production of The Importance of Being Earnest it says begins on May 14, and elsewhere it refers to other entertainment taking place in 1986. May 1986. I do a quick calculation in my head. ………. Oh My God! May 1986. That would make it ……… nine months before Dean was born. He was born in February 1987. I feel faint. …….. I always wondered why Dean looked so little like me. But it would explain why we saw so much of Dr Gauguin. He was always around the house after Dean was born. Any excuse. If he’d had any sense of decency he would have stayed well away. And then there were extravagant birthday gifts that used to arrive for Dean’s birthday. ….. Wait. There are more. …… I think I’m going to be sick.
‘What’s the matter?’ says Rachel. She is not used to seeing me like this. I am usually the embodiment of composure. ‘Are you all right?’
I show her the photos I have just found.
‘Oh! I see!’ she says. ‘I always thought you knew.’
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved