Monday, February 22, 2010

Who Are These People?

Their arms uplifted, they raise their legs into the air and...what? Did they do a cartwheel? Did they perform a dance? Did they collapse on the grass in helpless laughter? And who are they? Longtime friends? New lovers? I so wish I had the answers.

They live inside one of the four cracked leather albums I bought at a flea market in London years ago. Most of the other photos inside have places and dates written on the back in a curling script, but this one is blank. I am pretty positive it dates from the 1920's-1930's, but the two garden sprites are a mystery.

My hope is to piece the stories together one day because whoever all these people were, they led quite the life. Page after page is filled with fancy dress parties and exotic vacations and airplane rides and ocean liners and beach outings and country estates...
...and much, much more.

There's an Adrien Brody lookalike indulging in some good-natured teasing with a girl in front of a white-washed cottage.

There are four well-dressed friends in the middle of a spirited conversation. Who are they? What are they laughing about? Why is the young man on the right grinning at the photographer as though they share a private joke of their own?

There's an afternoon outing in an automobile with the excitement of the occasion clearly visible on everyone's faces.

There's a tea party in a back garden with a frizzy-haired little girl in a lovely scalloped dress and a self-assured little boy wearing what can only be called "short shorts."

More significantly, there is a certain crop-headed girl who makes enough repeat appearances in all of the albums to make me suspect they must have belonged to her. She appears in a bathing costume at Kingsgate in August of 1924...

...visits Torino in July of 1929...

...reclines on a couch like an Odalisque at an unknown date...

...and wraps herself in blankets with her coworkers after a radiator burst in March of 1931. (That's her, second from right.)

I have a particular fascination with the man in the blanket. Look at the way he's gazing theatrically off into the distance. The other three ladies crouch halfheartedly while he strikes a pose like Greta Garbo at the prow of the ship in "Queen Christina." I wish I had known him, don't you?

In one of the albums I found a faded envelope which reads:

Miss Margaret Briggs
41 Rue D'Auteuil
Paris XVI
France


On its own, it could mean anything, but going through the photos again today, I stopped to rhapsodize over the geometric Art Deco wallpaper in this room...
...and taking it out, I realized there was writing on the back of the photo:

My room
41 R. D'Auteuil
10' 100 Watts -
3/1931

The address on the envelope and the address on the photo match. So was the owner of my albums named Margaret Briggs? Somehow it seems too easy to be true. And even if it was, would that even help me after all these years? No doubt the stories and tales and records of the principal characters have been long overwritten by the ceaseless hum of the universe.
(Date unknown)

In a way, it doesn't matter. Perhaps not knowing who they are gives their images a more powerful intensity. Deprived of their identities, I parse the details of their photos not to uncover cold, hard facts but to seek clues into their emotional lives. What kinds of things were important to them? How did they live? How did they love? How did they relax? And how can I bring some of their passion and their fervor and their spirit into my life today?

One thing is certain: Piero and I need to do more cartwheels on the grass.

40 comments:

Madelief said...

What a treasure this album is. I hope that one day you will find family of the owner and hear more of Margarets past!

groetjes van Madelief

Kathy Gillespie said...

I love old photo albums. I also love of old letters. I once found a bundle of love letters in a box at auction written from numerous soldiers to a particular young lady during WWII...they all seemed to be crazy in love with her. It was curious to me what kind of a person she must of been giving hope to men at war or leading them down a primrose path! I was mesmerized for an entire afternoon.

Cathi said...

What a fabulous find that you have there. Isn't it fun to let your imagination give life to the photos? It would be interesting to find out the whole story.

My daughter and I often do that with random people that we see in public. We make up stories about their lives. :)

Lynne said...

old photo's carry such magic. i have lots of my own family - that are such an inspiration!

Anonymous said...

I was entranced by those old photos! Being the geek I am, I googled her name, and found an intriguing entry on http://plpnemweb.ucdavis.edu/Nemaplex/General/Biographies/ECDougherty.htm

the third section on the page about Dougherty investigates etc. talks about a young woman scientist with that name. I just wonder......
~Madeline

Modern Traditionalist said...

What a serendipitous find! Yet, what tragedy placed the album at flea market? To think all those personal memories are now in the hands of a stranger. Thank goodness the fortuitous custodian is you! They are ripe fruits begging to have a their stories extracted into a novel.

MT

pve design said...

my sister in law lives on the rue d'auteil.
love all these images. what a life.
c'est la vie!
pve

ArchitectDesign™ said...

How fascinating! I'm sure with your imagination you can weave together a fictional tale of her life and write an amazing book with photos to headline each chapter-similar to what you have done here! Let me know if you need a co-author, HA!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Kathy GIllespie: Those letters sound wonderful. What a temptress she must have been.

Cathi: That's the best game ever...and by the way, you and your daughter are gorgeous.

Anonymous: So cool that you looked her up. The link you posted doesn't seem to work, though. Now you have me wondering whether she was a scientist. She does look bookish.

Modern Traditionalist:I know. I feel so lucky to have them. And now posting a few of the images means others can rhapsodize about them, too. :)

PVE: Quelle coincidence! xx

abodewell said...

Wow! These are gorgeous! So inspiring! Please post more! and I love the way you weave these together! Beautiful blog!

Debs said...

What fascinating photos and how lovely to have found these albums. It's sad to think that no one in the family wanted the albums after someone had so carefully put them together.

Lisa said...

What a treasure! I once found, at a garage sale, found an old large,family Bible. I planned on using it to add height to a photo on a table. Several years later when I changed the arrangement I happened to open the Bible. OH MY! There were dates of births/deaths/marriages pre-revolutionary war! There were even newspaper clippings dated during the Civil War. This book didn't belong to me anymore, this was somebody's family history. I contacted a local museum that specializes in geneology and they eventually found a home for it in a Public Library in New York state. It seems that was where the family first set up home in this country. I told my local museum all I asked in return for turning it over to them was that I'd like to know where it ended up.

Have fun in giving 'life' to your photos and try not to pull any muscles performing the cartwheels.

dwellinganddesign said...

I have been collecting old photos for some time, and there just seems to be something about them. Such mystery always- I love to look at the women (who always seem to be the stars of these albums). These photos are so lovely- congratulations on such an intriguing find.

Emily said...

All of the pictures are enchanting and mysterious. I often wonder too, how did these people really live their lives? Such a different time and place, yet I'm sure the workings of the human heart remained the same. Isn't that what we learn from good literature? Still, to go back and visit with them all!

Nessje said...

I love a mystery. The possibility of solving one - even more alluring. Could this be her?
http://history.earthsci.carleton.ca/harvey/genealogy/margaret.briggs.1.htm
The date is about right, this Margaret spent time in England and Italy... the photo of her even resembles the seaside shot a little.
Part of me hopes it isn't her, you'll understand why I know. Her story even explains how this album could have ended up stranded in London.
Thank you for being so captivating, you and Margaret both.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Nessje: I think your link got cut off somehow -- can you post it again and if it runs over, divide it into two lines? I would love to see what you found...how exciting... xx

Lisa: That is one incredible story. Pre-Revolutionary War?! What an artifact to find at a garage sale. Thank you for sharing your tale. xx

Scott Fazzini said...

What a sweet post. The attic of the house where I grew up with filled with photos, letters, clothes, shoes, etc. My family never used the space, and it was hot as ____ up there, but as a kid I'd spend hours playing up there. I'd come down with soot all over my face, hands, and bottom. It's my private daily goal to be that "little boy in short shorts at the tea party". Thanks for the reminder.

Semi Expat said...

Absolutely fascinating - I really enjoyed that post. Thank you so much for giving a glimpse into the photograph album.

Kate F. said...

I'm another person who gets endlessly sucked in to making up the stories of the lives in old photos. Some of them have to come home with me, some of them I can leave in the dusty boxes under antique store tables. I've framed my favorites in my office on an Anonymous Wall of Awesomeness. (My favorite is of what looks like a sweatshop button factory of some kind, in the first decade or two of the 20th century. The female workers, who look like they are probably Italian, are clustered around the worktable with the lone man looking dictatorial in an apron, arms crossed, at the back. In the foreground a toddler in a smock.)

I am in complete agreement, though, with the commenter who mentions the tragedy of these albums ending up in a shop. It breaks my heart every time, wondering what happened to turn them from treasured family history into silent relics.

Enzie Shahmiri * Portrait Artist said...

Piecing together history through old faded photos is such fun! Love your find ~

Nessje said...

Oops...
Here's the URL again, as well as in tiny form.

http://history.earthsci.carleton.ca/harvey/genealogy/margaret.briggs.1.htm

http://tinyurl.com/yg4zydw
Fingers crossed this works!

Nessje

Rocio said...

Wow, what a fabulous find!
I find those old photos fascinating. In our old family house there are two very ancient leather albums, with gorgeous gilded rivets. They have photographs of my mum's family, from the 1800's. Some of them we know who they are, others we can only guess.
It is curious to see how some family traits have been inherited and how maybe a great great great uncle looks a lot like one of your cousins!!

Lydia, Clueless Crafter said...

When I was a little girl, I'd go to the country with my parents on day trips. We visited every small shop and antique store we laid eyes on, all in the hopes of rummaging through bins of old photos and adding a narrative to the forgotten.

What a delightful post! Thanks to the Modern Traditionalist for taking me back here (I've stopped by before).

Susan's Snippets said...

Lisa -

I love old photos of relatives or as you have found, of unknown people. There is a great picture of my father after making his first communion from the early 1940's and in the background is a woman wonderfully dressed for the times.

I look at every old photo and try to draw myself into that same period.

Stories to be written about your lovely Margaret...I am sure they are already swirling around in your head.

they need to be read

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Nessje: I just read the link on Margaret Briggs, war heroine that you posted. I don't think she's the girl in my photos, but she could very well still be the person to whom the envelope is addressed. Regardless, it was amazing to read about her brave life and early death at just 35. As George Eliot said, "...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

Thank you, Nessje.

knitlit kate said...

what a fascinating post...and discussion thread! one of my favorite flea market finds was a box of sewing notions from the turn of the last century. inside, i found a small leatherbound notebook filled with tiny handknit swatches and handwritten designs and notes. being a knitter myself, i was thrilled at my discovery. there was also an envelope tucked inside which was addressed to katherine diamond on orchard street...my name is katherine, too, and i grew up on a street called orchard lane. in a funny way, i felt like i was connecting with someone's soul through this dusty little book. anyway, thank you so much for this lovely tribute to all of the hidden lives and unfinished cartwheels yet to be discovered.

Tricia said...

How wonderful! I know a woman named Margaret "Peggy" Briggs, and have emailed her on the wildcard chance that she has ancestors in Europe. Of course there are hundreds of such names, but who knows?!! Part of the thrill of the hunt.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Knitlit Kate: All these stories coming in are just incredible. Yours especially. What are the chances of such serendipity happening...?? You, and only you, were clearly meant to have that notebook. So glad the stars were aligned in your favor that day.

Tricia: So fabulous...I love the thrill of the hunt as well. How cool that you emailed your friend...fingers crossed... xx

Tricia said...

P.S. I was just reading the latest New York Magazine article about Andy Spade and this caught my eye: "Found photography has become a passion of Andy’s, and he buys crates of other people’s pictures at flea markets." {He sells them in his new shop, too!.}

Link: http://nymag.com/fashion/10/spring/63806/index2.html#ixzz0gUvlWMKU

Tricia said...

P.P.S. No luck. It's her name by marriage, but she has forwarded to her mother-in-law. At the least, you have two new Briggs fans!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Tricia: I saw the Andy Spade article as well...love that he collects photos. Have you seen the post The Style Saloniste just did on Little Augury's one-of-a-kind postcards made from vintage photos? It's great...

http://www.thestylesaloniste.com/

bee said...

This is one of my favourite posts, on any blog, EVER!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

bee: Oh my gosh, thank you! xx

Margaret said...

With a name like 'Margaret' you know she had to be good! I'm sure she'd be thrilled to pieces that we're fascinated, enthralled and mystified by her life and loved ones. Thank you for sharing with us. More, please.

Malik said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ewix said...

What an amazing find. Yes, I can quite imagine how one would envision the lives of the people in the photos. A delight indeed.
Came to you via Persephone books newsletter.

Susiachi said...

you can google map that address and see Number 41 in "street view"--look for the blue "Librarie Fontaine" awning at street level.

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