Sunday, April 5, 2009

Documents of Family History

Edward Nigel Morris Baines
photographer unknown

On a black shelf overlooking the maelstrom of clutter that is my office rests a small reproduction of an aged photograph of my grandfather: Edward Nigel Morris Baines. The photo is a drug-store reprint made from the scan of this old image, sitting in an embellished silver frame likely purchased from the same drug-store. The original photograph is a hand-colored black & white, and either due to the ravages of time, the deletorious effects of reproduction, or the lack of brilliance on the part of the original artist, the colors aren't exactly spot-on.

My grandfather is depicted as a young man in his British paratrooper's uniform during World War II, posing for a formal portrait. His jump wings are barely visible on his right shoulder, and the emblem of the airborne engineers is present on his dark beret. He looks young in a way that is hard to connect with my memories of him: the classicly reserved elderly British gentleman. Seeing this picture forces a paridigm shift in the way I think of him not totally dissimilar from when I discovered that the long-buried geneology of his nickname "Claude" derived from his not-so-endearing term for other drivers.

Claude passed away after a long and heroic battle with leukemia in 2001. I had never really noticed this picture, nor given his military service any particular thought. I loved my grandfather and mourned his passing, but my connection to him had always been somewhat abstract. I'd spent my life a continent away, with only periodic visits to bridge the gap of his typically reserved character.

After a series of tumultuous events in my life that year and a catastrophic event for the country, I made the decision to enlist in the military. Never one for half-measures I became a triple-volunteer: I volunteered for the Army, volunteered for Airborne training, and volunteered to join the Special Forces Regiment.

While visiting my father on leave a few years back, I finally noticed these pictures of my grandfather hanging along with a regimental portrait and his old unit patch. Not only did my features resemble his, but I suddenly realized that we both belonged to a fairly elite group of soliders foolish enough to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Even though Claude was a few years gone, I suddenly felt closer to him than I ever had in life. With his blue eyes and rakish beret, exuding confidence and perhaps a thirst for adventure, my grandfather could have been my comrade, my brother, or myself.

This image is, for me, a priceless document of family history that connects me to my forebear in a way that wouldn't have been possible based purely on the abstract knowledge of his service.

When I photograph portraits or weddings, I constantly remind myself that perhaps the single greatest gift that I can give to my clients' families is the potential that one day in the future, a young person may find in the characteristic expression captured in one of my images a deeper connection to their heritage and a more profound understanding of their roots. I owe a debt to the nameless photographer who gave me the gift of a more profound relationship with my grandfather's memory, and I'm conscious of that every time I lift the camera to my eye.

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