Every Picture Tells A Story by Chris Green
I bought my first SLR camera, a Canon EX, in 1977. 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 rock band I was involved with. I carried on taking pictures, 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, and over the years I had a few pictures blown up for display, and a few more made their way into family albums. The rest got stored, unsorted, in the back of a series of cupboards or in attics in various houses I lived in through my serial relationships, eventually ending up in the attic. The prospect 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, downsizing.
After watching a life laundry programme on TV, we decided we need to clear out the attic. It seemed destined to stay at the resolution stage, but a week later, Rachel reminded me by subtly leaving the loft ladder down, and went out. I took a look at the storage crates of photo wallets. One by one I took them down and began to organise them. I realised straight away that it would be a time-consuming exercise. But hopefully, a cathartic one. My photos suggested that I have had a good life. Admittedly, you did not take photos of grey clouds over Grimsby or blizzards in Swindon. Also, unless you wanted the camera broken over your head, you didn’t tend to take photos of your partner during a domestic dispute or on a bad hair day. In short, you did not think to take photos unless you were feeling good.
But as I look through them, I realise that I have been fortunate. There are some memorable moments captured on film. Here’s one of Lori and me in Colombia. In Barranquilla on the coast. At the Carnival. Lori 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 punk wedding in late 70s. And in this one, I have a huge thick beard. Late1980s, I imagine. 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. 1988, it says on the back. It must have been Julia. Before James and Dean were born. Yes, here Julia is on the bicycle 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 shoebox 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-Élysées. That can’t be right, perhaps it’s not the Champs-Élysées, perhaps they are not camels. Here’s one of Saskia standing in the doorway of Hitler and Son Jewellers. That was in Cyprus. It really was called that. I wasn’t with Saskia very long. Probably a good thing. Life was too chaotic. All the people we knew seemed to have crises every minute of every day back then. 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 a Rolling Stones concert. 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 EuroDisney. 1995 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 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 storing 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 can 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 thing. 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 mid 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 seemed 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 away 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 photo, 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 1991. May 1991. I do a quick calculation in my head. ………. Oh My God! May 1991. That would make it nine months before Dean was born. He was born in February 1992. 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?’Rachel says. 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.’
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