On Looking (at Old Photos)

I spent a lot of time the past few years looking at old family photos – a family I never knew (it would be more accurate to call them by the antiseptic term “ancestors”). While writing my memoir My Two Italies, I researched my family’s history through the material evidence of their lives in southern Italy, before they immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. All of it was deeply affecting – my grandfather Carmine Crocce’s naturalization papers, my father’s war citation, my siblings’ Italian birth certificates, and my mom’s Italian identity card, which listed her profession as casalinga,” “housewife.” But nothing moved me like the photographs. The negatives have long since been lost, and I had to rely on multigenerational prints, some deeply faded. Yet the chance to look into the eyes of the people I was writing about brought them to life.

Before the book, my grandparents were only names. My maternal grandmother, Rosaria Crocco, had helped raise me as a child, but my father sent her back to Italy in a rage, claiming she was meddlesome, when I was too young to remember her. By the time I finished My Two Italies, I understood that my mother was truly her father Carmine’s child: the same warm expression, the same hint of nerves and anxiety in eyes that have seen too much suffering. I felt like I was meeting my grandfather – and my mother – for the first time.

There’s a picture from the “Old Country” that never made it into the book, a group portrait of some Calabrian villagers:

9_carmine_workers_fsg_up

Before seeing this photo, I had never heard of any of the people in it. Yet nothing reminds me more of the lost world of my parents – the one they abandoned for good so that we, their children, would have a better life in America – than this once-anonymous picture. It’s all there: the dirt roads, the roughhewn clothing, the choral nature of village life. Although the photo was from the 1950s, it may as well have been from the 1800s or even 1700s. My parents fled Calabria because they did not want to raise their children in an world they knew would change as little as this frozen snapshot.

I’ve since learned who the people are: on the far right, the shepherd Vincenzo Crocco, my grandfather Carmine’s brother; beside him, the giant Luigi, Carmine’s brother-in-law; in the center, his wife, Bomina, a housewife like all Calabrian matrons at the time; to her right, my grandfather’s friend the dapper Federico Olfello, a laborer; next to him, his wife, Anna. I asked my mother why the picture was taken, and she didn’t recall – perhaps they had just slaughtered a pig, she guessed, and all had joined for a celebratory feast. I knew none of them – but the faces of this group helped me write my book. I see my grandfather Carmine in his brother Vincenzo: the same small and delicate frame, proud bearing, and thoughtful look. Most of all, I see my parents in their first home, the friends and family they left behind and never returned to.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin claimed that photographs lack “aura”: they are created by a mechanical process (the imprinting of light on a negative), rather than by an artist’s hand, making them infinitely reproducible. But he also claimed that a photo can provide something that a painting or sculpture never can: an index or record of the moment in space and time when the picture was taken. I felt the power of Benjamin’s observation as I stared at my long-lost relatives: they were indeed fixed at a point in the past, preserved forever in this now-vanished Calabrian universe.

But perhaps a photo can have an aura of its own. Though it was a mechanical process that recorded these Calabrian villagers – and though I only knew them in digital form – I could still smell the past, private and public. And I could only hear my people’s stories when I could look them in the eyes.

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