I recently received an e-mail from a Permanent Record reader named Russell Ries, who had this to say:
Much like yourself, I am fascinated by historical detritus -- items, like your report cards, that have been carried to strange places by the undulations of time. The mystery of returning them is a fun puzzle to solve, but it also gives them back their full historical significance.
A while back I bought a cigar box full of old photos [shown above — Paul] for $10 at a flea market in Monteagle, Tennessee. When I got home and started looking through the photos, I realized that they were all of the same individual. As it turns out, I had purchased some guy's entire life's worth of photographs without realizing it. Even better, there are handwritten explanatory notes on the backs of most of the pictures. So I arranged the pictures in chronological order as best I could and have been periodically posting them on Flickr. There are 144 pictures up right now, and I still have another 80 or so yet to post. You can start at the oldest photo, when the guy was 14 months old, here.
Intriguing! I wanted to know more, so I asked Russell if he'd be willing to do a quick phone interview with me. He readily agreed. Here's a transcript of our chat:
Permanent Record: First, tell me a bit about yourself. How old are you, where do you live, and what do you do for a living?
Russell Ries: I'm 28, I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and at the moment I advise people with small businesses.
PR: Interesting. How would you advise someone who's trying to make a living by writing about old report cards?
RR [laughs]: Ah, that's a good question...
PR: Just kidding, obviously. Okay, let's talk about your project. In your first email to me, you said you found the photos "a while back." When was it?
RR: It was Memorial Day weekend of 2011.
PR: What attracted you to the photos to begin with?
RR: I like collecting old photographs, because I sort of view them as the earliest stage of the visual information age in which we live. So whenever I go to flea markets, I'll go to the various booths and say, "Hey, got any old photographs?" And this one lady said, "Yeah, I've got this box -- $10." And I said okay.
PR: Do you collect other found objects, besides photos?
RR: Some, yeah, I've started to. I'm actually getting into metal detecting. It's really prevalent around here with Civil War stuff.
PR: So you buy this box of photos for ten bucks. At what point did you realize that the photos were all from one person's life?
RR: As soon as I drove home and started flipping through the photos, it sort of dawned on me. I saw the same names repeatedly written on the back of the photos. It wasn't hard to figure out.
PR: Maybe I'm missing something -- it certainly wouldn't be the first time -- but have you listed the guy's name anywhere? Like, your Flickr captions say, "With his wife and son" or "In his father's garden," but you haven't actually listed his name anywhere, at least that I can see.
RR: That's right.
PR: Do you know what his name is?
RR: Yes. In fact, I actually went back to that same flea market dealer about a month after I got the photos. I said, "Hey, you sold me this guy's photos." And the dealer said, "Oh, yeah, I got that at an estate sale. I actually have more of his stuff." I wasn't expecting that -- I just wanted to learn more about the photos, where they came from -- but I said, "Give me everything." So I now own this guy's military dog tags and medals, and also his wallet and false teeth. The only thing I didn't buy was the guy's military jacket. Some of the photos in the cigar box actually show him wearing that jacket. But the dealer wanted too much money for it, so I didn't buy that. Anyway, yeah, I know his name -- I know a lot about him.
PR: Why have you not listed his name? Was that sort of an artistic choice on your part, or just respecting his privacy..?
RR: My feeling when I started the project was that while I do own the photographs, that doesn't mean I really know the true story of his life. Photos sort of represent the down time in people's lives, when they pause to pose for the camera. I didn't feel like I could truly do justice to this guy's life. So while I do own the photos, I didn't want to say, "Hey, this is this guy's full life and this is what he was about." And yes, there was also the privacy thing -- I felt a little weird about that. But when I discovered Permanent Record and started looking at your approach, I've kinda been rethinking that. I don't know. I just chose to err on the side of caution, basically.
PR: Looking at your Flickr stream, it appears that you've been uploading the photos in batches, often with long breaks in between. Like, you did some in late October, then some more in mid-November, and then you didn't upload any more of them until early June. Is there any rhythm to all of this that you're shooting for, or is it just one of those things that you deal with when you can get around to it?
RR: Just when I can get around to it. And I had some issues with my hard drive.
PR: What will you do when you finish uploading all the photos?
RR: I'm not sure. I have wanted to go and find the guy -- well, not the guy, because he's passed away, but his relatives.
PR: Yeah, I was gonna ask you that. Have you done any research in terms of finding them?
RR: A little bit. I've been kinda wondering about that, though. I mean, nobody wanted this guy's stuff when he passed away. Like, what if his relatives didn't like him? They might not want to be contacted. I think I'd like to do it, but it's one of those bridges that I'll cross later, once I'm done uploading all the photos. I would definitely like to return his war medals to a proper home -- if not to his family, then maybe to a veterans affairs group.
PR: Did you see, I recently blogged about a guy who tries to return old war medals to the soldiers' families?
RR: Yeah, that's what got me thinking about doing that.
PR: It's weird, isn't it, to have this sort of intimate knowledge of a stranger's life? I think about that all the time with Permanent Record.
RR: It is. I think of him almost as a friend, in a strange way, because I have these tangible connections to him. But at the same time, when I got all those other artifacts -- the medals, the wallet -- it was a little bit disappointing to lose some of the mystery of just having a box full of photos.
PR: I know that feeling! Sometimes the questions, or the mystery of the questions, can be more fun than learning the answers.
PR: If you had the chance to do this again with another person -- going down the rabbit hole of someone's life -- would you do it?
RR: Definitely. But I feel like it was just providence that led me to this one, and that kind of thing doesn't happen very often. I don't think I'll ever find another cigar box full of one person's photos.
PR: Well, maybe. I think certain people don't have to go looking for artifacts -- artifacts find them.
Great stuff. Big thanks to Russell for sharing his project and his thoughts with us.