I can't remember exactly when I started seeing family photographs in a different way than I'd viewed them when they were taken. I suspect that most of us have family pictures on display somewhere around our homes or stuffed in our wallets or purses. A generation or two ago my family collected them in albums with large pages inside transparent protective sheets, thick padded covers, each image mounted with black or white corner triangles, sometimes with identifying names, dates, and places scribbled below them. My grandmother's albums were often a little mysterious, crammed with images of people sometimes three generations older than me, friends and relatives I'd never met or even heard of. My mother's albums were more fun to leaf through because I could recognize ever younger versions of people I spent time with daily or weekly or at least once or twice a year at family reunions—grandparents and their siblings, uncles and aunts, cousins, neighbors and their children. My mother and her brothers in high school. My dad and my uncles in military uniforms. People at their weddings lined in front of church altars. Unrecognizable infants in arms below familiar faces. Some appreciation of the passage of time should have dawned on me when I sat scrutinizing those images—grandparents slim and youthful here, stout and definitely mature elsewhere; my mother a little girl in a first communion dress there, a woman in a wedding dress here—but I doubt that it did.
Somehow, eventually, as I myself aged and the time between album viewings lengthened, I was sometimes startled by my reaction to an image. There would be an expression I hadn't seen before on a face I readily recognized, a hint of connection or disconnection between two figures in a photo, a clue about attitude or age or health that hadn't been apparent—to me—before. I recall a photo of me on my father's lap at Christmas, perhaps the first picture of the two of us together ever taken—what did the image record? It was taken in the middle of the Second World War. He wore a Marine uniform and smoked a pipe and bent his head to look at me while I, at 13 months old, stared intently—confused? alarmed?—at the camera. Was my mother taking the picture? What was I feeling then about this guy I barely knew? This guy I'd only just met? What was he feeling about me? What did the picture tell us about our moment together? Was it a photo he'd want to show his comrades when he returned to his unit?
I also remember two photos of my mother with a little girl in a First Communion dress. In one my mother is lively, charming, cheerful and in the other somber, remote, distant; the little girl is solemn and almost expressionless in both. I'm uncertain of the date of the photos, clearly a gathering to celebrate the girl's First Communion. She would become, or she was then, temporarily my stepsister. Do the pictures give me any insight into their relationship? Are they both equally honest images of what both of them were feeling? Do they help me explain why that little girl (and her older sister and her father) were only related to me and my mother and my siblings for so brief a time?
Often now the family photographs I track down seem to invite me to interrogate them. I write a journal entry hoping to explain what they make me feel about the people in them, the occasion when they were taken, what they might tell me about who I used to be and maybe why I am who I am now. Poets sometimes write ekphrastic poems—ekphrasis is a Greek word for a description of a visual work of art—and at least one journal, The Ekphrastic Review, devotes itself to such poetry. I've actually published an ekphrastic essay there, "Perspective." When an album entry in my journal develops into something more formal and polished, I term it an "imagessay," combining "image" and "essay" into one word (and pronouncing it as if it were French, to make it sound more literary). Given our ability to add images to our Internet writing ("blogs" are "web logs," after all), we sometimes simply illustrate what we have to say with a photo or two, and the visual element isn't really essential to the blog. Sometimes, however, the image and the expression (the essay) harmonize so thoroughly that they are equally important and demand the same amount of attention of the viewer/reader, much in the way a work of art demands the same amount of attention as the language in an ekphrastic poem. You need to examine the image as well as comprehend the language. In ekphrastic prose that creates an imagessay.
Sometimes a family photograph needs to become an imagessay.