through his eye

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With my two sisters, my grandmother, my mother – and my father’s face behind a camera…  A mirror in London, 1980.

This is a post partially inspired by conversations with Roman and Wanda, our companions in the Project Topoi adventure. It is also inspired by very personal feelings at this time in my life – a conversation with my father (who has been having serious health problems in the past few months) that spans decades, a (usually silent) conversation that now seems to spill away from the original topics and into earlier moments of our lives. A conversation that needs images to trigger connections, a conversation where photographs of earlier days plays a central role. A conversation not only with him but now with my sisters and my mother as well, as they feature prominently in many of the old (forgotten) photographs we have been digging with María Clara.

A collection of slides taken (mostly, perhaps 75 or 80% of them) by my father during our four years in Europe (late 1977 to late 1981), is the main bulk of it. There are a few earlier photographs, very few of them – and then, I remember both the camera and the projector seemed to break down around 1982, and slowly other interests and the return to Bogotá seemed to bring to an end that spur of photography, that visual impulse.

[There are also of course photographs taken by my mother and perhaps even some taken by myself – I remember I learned to use the Minolta they had but cannot quite remember which photographs did I take – some group photographs where I don’t appear may very well have been taken by that earlier version of myself. I myself had a Kodak Instamatic of very low quality; I doubt any of those Instamatic photographs remains…]

So a few days ago with María Clara we started rephotographing those old slides; armed with a projector, a tripod and our cameras, projecting, deciding what to keep and rephotographing. Then a few days of edition, selection – and here are more than 400 old slides spanning those few years (and many places and visits). And of course a ridiculous amount of lost memories resurfacing – to the point of re-dreaming moments lived when I was 10 or 11 years old. And of course, re-conversations with my sisters and with my father and mother.

What really emerges from those hundreds of photographs, in addition to the moments and faces and places and memories, what really emerges is the eye of the photographer. Although my father was just recording life as it came, with no special pretensions of artistry (although there is a series where he seems to have been inspired by something – that series has a more intentional character than the rest and I still seem to recall that day he told my sister María Piedad and me “let’s go to the Bois des Rêves, the Forest of Dreams – a small wood some 10 km from where we lived – I want to take photos of the two of you”; those photos seem to have a different character from the rest).

The eye of my father when he was living through an intense period of his own life, his way of seeing for some years between 1977 and 1981, it is all there. (It was impossible not to think of tes mnemês topos, one of the topoi of our project with Roman and Wanda and María Clara, while opening that eye.)

In no particular order, a (very) few of them:

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A photo of me, when I was 12 years old, holding with my left hand my Kodak Instamatic camera, on the Cutty Sark in East London.

Here is one of my favorites (I find it very atmospheric):

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This is the Danube somewhere in Austria. I remember we camped there with an uncle and aunt who visited and went with us all the way from Belgium to Athens in the summer of 1979, camping all the way. In the middle I stand with my uncle.

Those long (one month!) camping summer trips were incredibly intense – and an occasion to meet Europeans from everywhere – Poles in their Polskis or Zastavas, East Germans in their Trabants (no Russians, few Czechs, many Yugoslavs of course) – in addition of course to the French and Germans who seemed to crisscross the continent in camping.

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Somewhere in Catalonia – El Vendrell? I don’t remember exactly. 1978, with my mother and two sisters.
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This blurry, badly composed photograph, was the view from the apartment in Louvain-la-Neuve. Nothing special except for the people who lived there. I wonder if  those children in the bicycle are my sister and I. Impossible to know.

In contrast with the previous, here is a much better photograph (well, the general feel is ok – if he wanted to photograph us (I am there, very small, with my mother and sister and a friend of hers), he definitely should have tried a different composition. Yet there is a magic in this photo (to me).

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Here is a photo I really like, on that famous day we went for a long walk with him and he was photographing carefully.

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Here with my sister María Piedad.

But many slides are more like this:

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I appear there (although that wouldn’t be very clear from the photo itself). The place is very non-descript post-industrial Mont-St-Guibert, a row of workers’ houses… Not too fond memories of that place.

This was the first decoration of the lamp when just arrived to that new place – the lamp with older photos of the family:

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Some of the old slides look very atmospheric, very interestingly lit:

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My grandmother is here with my mother and youngest sister. The grandmother visited us when my grandfather died, a couple of months after. It was a beautiful visit, but of course she was (quietly) mourning.

There is more and more. But I particularly like this photograph with my mother in Switzerland (in the Valais) in the summer of 1981. For some reason it brought back to my mind my love for the French-speaking part of Switzerland (St-Luc, Nendaz) where I had the chance of spending a couple of weeks in winter with my school from Belgium and then a couple of weeks in summer with my parents. I now see the photo and think of Tony Judt’s book (that Roman brought to Bogotá). I would like to go walk there some day again…

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In addition to the connection Switzerland-Tony Judt-Roman Kossak through the book and the gift of book with memories of walking in Switzerland, this photo reveals very sharply to me the eye of my father – and a time of my mother’s life when she participated in a feminist movement. Her t-shirt has a map of Latin America inscribed in the middle of the symbol of women. (For some odd reason, I also see the thirteen-year old boy in the photo, it is me yet in many ways yet that life was cut short by our return to Colombia soon after – it feels like a very different person as well.)

Camping somewhere (seems more Western Europe than Eastern Europe but we were in both) in 1979…

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Perhaps by the Danube in Austria…

Another one of those photos he took of my sister and I, walking near the Bois des Rêves…

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Those pictures look inspired by something. With my mother they used to go a lot to movies; I wonder if some of that was subconsciously there…

And finally, a photo of the photographer (taken most likely by my mother).

 

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The sea in Ostende, José Luis Villaveces. 1977.

Coda.

When we saw the photographs of his thesis defense with my father yesterday he said he had never actually seen them! That’s quite possible: the slide projector broke down that day (he used it for his presentation but in the middle of the fuss asked someone to project the slides; that person turned down the projector while it was hot and… it melted). Also the camera’s light sensor seemed to break a few months later. With the move and no projector, it is not so strange he didn’t see the photos of the party after his defense (until yesterday, many many years later).

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After his successful defense, surrounded by some Colombian friends. His expression of relief is amazing. 1981.

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