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Finding Nancy Part II…

This is the earliest of Nancy’s albums with the first photographs being dated as August 1950. To put this in some historical context, this was the month that Princess Anne was born, the first live television transmission between Britain and France took place (“how very interesting” I hear you say), and also when Britain began sending troops to Korea – “The Forgotten War”.

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What strikes me about the photographs in the first few pages of the album is that this is only five years after the end of World War II. This period of British (and of course world) history has always fascinated me because unless one lived through those times it is hard to comprehend the sense of loss that so many would have endured on so many different levels. For sure, there is empathy but I think even the most empathic of people eventually encounter that numbness ~ the limits of not having had those ‘real-time’ emotional and sensory experiences whereby we can truly know. How are people able to mourn when the whole world is mourning also? How did people who’d witnessed (and even taken part in) the most horrific acts manage to reclaim some normality in their lives. How did they (if they felt they had to) forgive themselves, forgive others, and try and move on with their lives? Where on earth do you begin trying to make sense (if there is any) of and move on from, that utter utter mess?

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I can’t help but think of these things when I look through these albums. In many of the photographs in this particular album Nancy is travelling through Cumbria and Scotland with Jim, Alan, and Leddy (?). They all look like happy and adventurous folk ~ having fun, joking about (especially Jim).

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I do wonder though (as I do with most old photographs taken in or around WWII) what the war took from them (because it pretty much took something or someone from everyone), and where did they find the strength to pull it all back. I’ve asked people this before of course, who had lived and suffered loss during the war and they all say the same thing ~ of just having to “get on with it”. If WWII showed us the devastation we are capable of, then it also showed our resolve ~ not only during, but afterwards too.

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Finding Nancy…

Today I begin a new project. I’ve had these albums sitting around for a while now but because of my PhD commitments I’ve not yet had a chance to do much with them. To be honest I don’t have much time right now either – but it’s kind of connected to my work…right?

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The seller could not tell me where they were from because he himself didn’t know as he bought them randomly at auction. The seller was a great guy though. He bought them because of some fabulous postcards that were in the album as he thought he could sell them on. Thankfully, on hearing what I was trying to do with the album he kept everything together, and he sold them to me for less than he could have got as he was moved by what I was trying to do.

On eBay – people will often split albums up into single photographs hoping they will get more money for them. It really bugs me when they do but I guess it’s all a case of supply and demand – and after all – who in their right minds would think of going through the whole rigmarole of getting them back to a family relative/ancestor? Still, I think it’s a shame that they get torn apart like that and whenever I can I try to get the complete collection – but I tell you it’s not always cheap!

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It’s kind of an ironic thing really when photographs that once provided intimate and meaningful representations of family life and family membership; of memory and experience, suddenly move into the public domain as objects for sale. It feels antithetical – they kind of break with the very circumstances in why they were produced. They lose their original symbolism and purpose in a way, but then again they can take on new ones. They move from very intimate representations to wider narratives that document and represent social history. And so in a sense they can become personal again – albeit in contributing to someone else’s understanding of the past.

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For example, I emailed someone once who had won an auction on eBay and asked them what they planned to do with the photographs they’d won. The woman emailed me back and told me that she was obsessed with Victorian history – her whole house was a shrine to Victoriana! The photographs, she told me, were part of this obsession. Some she would display around the house, and some she would keep in their albums – leafing through them every now and then and simply imagining and daydreaming about what the people in the photographs were like, and who they were. She felt, in a way, that she had a connection with the people in the photograph – and that is what I mean when I say these photographs of strangers can become personal – perhaps we invest a little of ourselves in them through our imaginings and daydreams, and simply becoming familiar with their faces.

I think perhaps I also develop connections with people in the albums I find. In some ways it’s hard not to. Going over albums, drinking in the faces and the smiles and the poses; times, places, clothes, events – you get to know these black and white spectres and begin to wonder what on earth happened to them – and how could it have come to the point where these photographs got separated from their homes? Behind each face though, is a story, and it is through my research that I hope some stories will emerge.

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So for these new albums I have a story is already very much present – a story of Nancy and her travels through Europe in the 1950s. The albums are beautifully kept and well organised, and the wonderful thing about it is that it is not just photographs that bless the pages but menus, telegrams, postcards, letters and ticket stubs. It really is one of the most astonishing collections I have come across and so I’m hoping we might have some luck with it!

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