Dodge & Burn: Photographs My Grandfather Took

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I am 25 years old and my grandfather has been gone for seven years. In some kind of quarter-life crisis, existentialist desire to reconnect with him (and my family, and my past) I began collecting his things. I’m by no means Jonathan Safran Foer status with my collecting, but it took me a year to track down his wallet (which I carry everyday). I’ve also developed a terrible habit of stealing photographs from family members. When my godfather died last Fall my dad found an 8 x 10 print from my parents’ wedding among his things. My dad stole it back from me one day when he stopped by my place; I’d taken it from him a few weeks prior. One Christmas while I was going through the few boxes left of my grandfather’s photographs, I began to shove the ones I liked into the pockets of my cardigan. Among them were the ones I’m presenting here. Originally they were from what I’m guessing was a simple rangefinder camera. I’ve squared them off but they were originally in 35 mm format. I’ve never found any 60s or 70s model cameras among my grandfather’s possessions, so I have no idea what camera was used to produce them. The time frame, I’m guessing by the age of my grandmother (red tank top, ice cream, left-hand side) was the mid-to-late 1970s. That’s him in the headband and western shirt.

Two things strike me deeply about these prints. Firstly, I overthink everything, and when I see them I begin to wonder, “Why’d you take a picture of that nitrous oxide tank in that car, or Nana eating ice cream with her friend?” I try to reconstruct the moment in my mind: maybe Granddad was at a car race; maybe that was his favorite stock car racer’s car; maybe it was a really lovely day with Nana and their friends. My grandparents loved hanging out with others, and we were rarely alone come evening time. Secondly, the composition of the photographs are completely unschooled. That is to say, they’re unbalanced and poorly focused. They have the kind of raw, Americana edginess hipsters spend hours trying to recreate. This, however, is the real thing. Instead of spending hours unlearning everything my grandfather was taught about photography (he never was, he went to barber school) and downloading an app on his phone to make his pictures look artistically vintage, he simply shot images that he deemed shootable, solely for the purpose of remembering; not necessarily so that his grandson could one day post them on an art blog he writes and shoots for, but for himself. He took them so that he and his wife and their friends could pull them out over a twelve pack of Bud heavy and remember the trip to Sea World, or the ridiculously huge pumpkins at that fair.

My grandfather took pictures to document memories, and in this day and age we often overlook the importance of the camera as a means of documentation. We seem to emulate the camera as a means to produce art or advertisements or pictures of girls with tattoos (guilty); but life is art. Every moment of every day is a pulsing, moving work of art presented to you by whatever name you give to your Creator. Sure it’s fun to put a filter over a photo that washes out skin tones and makes the color of the sky amber, but the soul of a photo lies in its memory. Remember that day we kicked around a soccer ball in the park? The night we drank too much at that rooftop party, which resulted in photos we can’t show our moms? That amazing sushi at Ru Sans and how terrible the music was? I love these prints because they are random, hardly in focus, and taken by someone who only saw the camera as a means of documentation—someone who took hundreds of pictures of me, my brother, and my grandmother simply because we were important and beautiful to him. This makes me ponder my desire to document everything. It’s something I just do. I think maybe the roots of it run deeper than I realize. I love photojournalism and social photography because it captures moments that happened and makes them last forever. My dad always tells me that at the end of your life, all you’ll have is your memories, and maybe also a couple of shoe boxes full of photos to help you relive them.
All photos by Winburn Barton, except for “Gringo Headbando” taken by Barbara Barton. All photos reproduced without permission by their grandson.

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