A Sense of Absence

Old photographs. I love old photographs, the older the better.

I love them, but I am haunted by the people in them.

I am not talking about spirits or spectres.

What it is that haunts me is a sense of absence.

The absence of the people in the photographs themselves-the fact that they are no longer here with us, their energy and essence now gone, creating a vacuum where they once took up space.

But it is not just an absence of the people that haunts me.

I am haunted also by the absence of resolution.

In most cases our questions remain unanswered, we will never know who these people were, what was in store for them after these photographs were taken. Did they go on to have good lives? Were their lives a success, or a struggle? Did they escape the squalor? Do their lines continue down to us today?

It is the human need to know, which cannot be fulfilled.

An absence of resolution.

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This photograph here was taken in the late 1800’s on Church Street in Whitby, that great historic town situated on the Yorkshire coast. A place where Dracula makes a strange bedfellow of St.Hilda.  I have been there many times, walking along that same street which leads to the 199 steps that climb up  to St.Mary’s church and the abbey ruins. The next time I am there I will have this picture in my mind’s eye, overlaying the present scene with this 19th Century one.

The one man band, the curious crowd.

I am conscious sometimes that I may read into the scenes that I survey on film my own ideas and understanding of the periods in which they were taken . But sometimes there are signs that act as indicators of the poverty, or conversely, the affluence, of the people involved.

Look at the two little boys to the right of the photograph.  Their backs are to the camera, their faces forever lost to us.

One child is barefoot upon the cobbles, the other child wears a boot on one foot while his other is bare, with some type of rag or bandage wrapped around his ankle.

But it is another person in the photograph who draws my eye.   To the left of the photograph a girl has spotted the photographer, and casts an inquisitive glance in our direction. In doing so she is forever connected to us. A curious glance that bridges the centuries.

After the shot was taken, maybe she turned back to the spectacle that first attracted her. And then what?  The performance over, what destiny took her from this moment of immortality? Did she escape from this Yorkshire town, perhaps swept away in a great love story, becoming a mother and grandmother along the way? We will never know.

In shifting scenes and shadows she is gone from us forever. But her image remains. An unknown person trapped in a particular place, a particular time.

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I like this photo-Ragamuffin Alley. This motley crew look like Fagin’s gang. Perhaps that is Mrs Fagin looking down from the upstairs window.

You could imagine the two girls stood to the side, talking about the boys assembled here, the way girls have done since time immemorial, whispering behind coy smiles.

And what of the boys themselves? From our vantage point we know the spectre of World War One was looming ahead. Were any of these lads called to shores they had no expectation of  ever being able to visit?  Do any of them still lie somewhere on foreign soil?

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Last year I stayed for a few days in Rothesay, on the Isle of Bute, Scotland.

There is a hill there known as Canada Hill. After tearful, emotional farewells on Rothesay Pier to loved ones who were leaving for a new life in Canada, relatives would scramble up this hill in order to catch a last  glimpse of  the ship as it disappeared from view.

This photograph here was taken of emigrants en route to Canada. It doesn’t convey a sense of excitement at the prospect of new beginnings. You can see people huddled together in shawls and blankets against the cold. The women, the fulcrum of the families, gathered together in the center, before them young lads huddled conspiratorially in conversation.

Was their journey a matter of choice? Were they compelled by necessity, by desperation? How many people alive today as proud Canadians owe their lives and nationality to the people captured in this photograph, making the courageous decision to make the journey to an unknown, New World?

I think of that vantage point now known as Canada Hill. People clinging to each other, families cleaved in two, watching a vanishing, ever diminishing shadow sail through the still water of the Firth of Clyde. Capturing one final, internalised  image from the far horizon, in the days before telephones and Skype, to replay over and over on cold winter nights. Dreaming about loved ones, not knowing. Waiting for news.

I love old photographs. But I am haunted by a sense of absence.

23 thoughts on “A Sense of Absence

  1. Wonderful post! How did you obtain some of these photographs? They’re all quite lovely. Each of them would make a wonderful story. Are you thinking about writing one about any of these photographs?


    • I often come across old photographs in second hand shops and little tucked-out-of-the-way places on holiday. The Internet too is full of old photographs that have been shared, like these here.
      I have never thought about writing stories about them. I am only just beginning to consider switching from writing poetry to short fiction. My favourite place is Orkney. When I haven’t been there for a while I read some George Mackey Brown and it takes me there. All his work was based in the Orkneys, (where he spent his life,)albeit set over a timespan of thousands of years.
      Although I live in an old industrial town that cannot possibly compete with the range of period history Orkney is famous for, from Neolithic, Viking,etc up to the 20th century of Brown’s time, I am attracted to the ‘bygone days’ section of our local newspaper which often features interesting stories from the 19th and 20th centuries of my town’s history. Perhaps I may find there the inspiration to ‘develop’ elements of them into a work of fiction.
      Food for thought maybe.


  2. One further thought has just struck me-all of these people in these photographs probably never actually saw the photographs themselves. None are family portraits. These scenes were viewed only from their own perspectives.


  3. I couldn’t help it, I had to reblog this, thank you for making me aware of this, you’ve given me a new perspective on looking at old photos, I’ve always been drawn to old photos, so much untold which we can fill in ourselves, never knowing the truth for sure. Well done sir! And please, don’t hesitate to point out a particular piece you’ve written, I would have missed this if you hadn’t mentioned it, thank you!!! 🙂


    • Thank you for sharing.
      There is another old photograph I am posting next week. Not a long post this time, just one photograph that caught my eye, with a few lines. A young girl and her Grandfather, with the most meagre information attached.
      Somehow in silence, they speak.


  4. Beautifully written !! what i like most about such photographs is that we can reconstruct their stories with our own far fetched imaginations. We can substitute their context with our own and while doing so we can relive in past. Their absence/presence gives opening to our own myriad of interpretations.


    • Yes, we can project and we can create. Each photograph in itself provides great inspiration for inventing stories, where we can provide our own resolution.
      But always, behind this, stands the spectre of real people removed.
      We hold a one-sided perspective.


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  6. Hey Andy, what a great post. I love what you wrote about this, I can myself look at old photographs for hours and just imagine stuff..

    I also love historic places. Not that it has anything to do with photographs, but if I know that something particular has happened at a place, it feels like magic!


    • Me too 🙂 wherever I go, I end up being drawn to places that have an historic significance.
      In my home city of Manchester, there is an area, now an English Heritage site, which was heavily industrialised in the 19th century. In discovering what I have about my family history, I sometimes walk the area and get a real sense of connection. The mills still stand, preserved, and there are many streets that have connections to my ancestors. It is a strange feeling, walking the same streets that they did centuries ago. Somehow it is like joining up the dots.
      It’s not everyone’s thing, I guess, but I love it 🙂 You either get it or you don’t! (And yes-I have done the odd post about it 🙂 )
      Incidentally, I’ve been thinking recently to run a theme on City Jackdaw about my different ancestors, as I’m worried about losing all my information. Some I know a lot about, some barely more than a few lines and dates, but once on my blog the info is stored and safe. We will see-thanks for reading.


  7. Reblogged this on City Jackdaw and commented:

    With many people showing interest in my post If Walls Could Talk, Concrete Confess, I thought I would reblog this post about why I love old photographs, but also why they haunt me. This is the last reblog, I promise. Tomorrow-something fresh.


  8. I think you nailed it with the phrase ‘forever lost.” We cannot now know these people’s stories, and that is painful. My Irish ancestors cam to the US through Canada, bit I don’t know why or how, and I wish I did.


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