“Half in Shade”: Writing from Family Photos


Dear friends,
My sisters and I are gathered around the coffee table, photographs fanned out like cards, awaiting placement in one of the untidy stacks. The photos are stacked by decade: some have deckled edges, some are Polaroids, and some are sepia-toned.  Here’s one from 1964:  I’m with my sister Missy, wearing my favorite blue hooded sweatshirt and holding a string of sunfish we caught, smiling proudly.

For the last four years—since our father passed away in 2009—we’ve gathered to visit and go through boxes of family photos together. When we cleared out our parents’ house—the same house we grew up in—we each took home a stack of boxes; now, we’re trying to winnow them down. This summer, we’re in St. Louis at my oldest sister Honore’s house in Richmond Heights, a lovely neighborhood of brick and stone houses, and streets lined with sweet gum and sycamore.

The first cut is easy: out go blurry images, landscapes, sunsets, endless photos of our dog. The next cut is harder: Do we throw out photos if we don’t recognize the people in them? For example, who are the people in this sepia-toned photo taken at the turn of the century? We see a baby in a dress, flanked by two stern-looking women. Judging by the date, we think it’s our grandfather, even though he’s wearing a dress; apparently, that was common at that time. But who are the women? His mother and her sister? Of course, we’ll keep it, even though we may never learn the names of those impassive faces. A good retirement project, we laugh, knowing it will likely be a few more years before any of us have time to research our family history.

Here’s where writing comes in:  we can use these photos as prompts. In my poetry class, I often ask students to bring in a family photo—and to write from that photo, letting the people in the photo speak—or write about what happens just before or after the photo was taken. Tacoma poet Allen Braden does this in “First Elk.”  (See below). And if we don’t know our family history, we can let our imagination fill in the gaps. Essayist Judith Kitchen is the master of this, and in her most recent book, Half in Shade: Family, Photography and Fate, she beautifully combines memoir and speculation to reflect on family and self, certainty and uncertainty.

This fall, dust off one of those boxes of family photos in the garage or basement and go through them. Take out a few photos that have especially compelling images and use them as seeds for writing. Let the photo trigger memories or your imagination; make up a story if you don’t know the people in the photo. Write a poem if you do. Perhaps a story will emerge that you can follow into fall. We hope you’ll share what you write with us, too.

Warm wishes as we head into fall,

img020First Elk, 1939

There’s Al Knoll and O. L. Hesner next to the carcass,
my father at eighteen and Uncle Tillman farther off.
Julian Sommers too, out of place in a raccoon coat
more accurate for downtown’s Post Alley
than somewhere above Devil’s Table in the Cascades.
This bull elk they bugled into range then fixed to the hood
of a Model A coupe was what the camera’s lens
had brought into focus and kept whole for over sixty years:
the seven point rack not yet hacksawed off
to adorn the bunkhouse back home in the valley;
the four quarters, the haunches and shoulders, not yet stripped,
soaked in a barrel of brine and cured for winter;
the prized teeth not yet gentled out of the jawbone
to pretty the watch chain of any pinstriped Mason.
Some, my father says, seem meant for slaughter,
for nothing but a slug in the head and a throat slit
to drain gallons of blood from the ready meat.
The occasion scrawled upon the picture frame is certain.
Otherwise the war would have revised the scene:
Tillman and Hesner on tour in the South Pacific,
uncertain whether only they were meant for beaches
strewn with shrapnel, wreckage and billowing smoke.
My father is, after all, no bigger than my thumb,
no more noteworthy than any of the others
except the camera captured the likeness,
for a moment, of the man he would become.

~Allen Braden


3 thoughts on ““Half in Shade”: Writing from Family Photos

  1. The oldest four kids are standing in a line, stair-steps six years old to ten. We’re standing in front of our grandmother’s house, because it’s Easter Sunday and she’s taking us to church. We’re posing like models in our new Easter finery. Bonnets with ribbons hanging down. Fedoras. Mary Janes. New dresses. New suits.

    Now grown-ups. My brother told me, when he was seven, Dad threw him onto the ground, and said he had to go fight, instead of being afraid of the bully. Then my sister told me Dad threw her against a wall and gave her a black eye when she was in fifth grade.

    Now, t’s hard to look at the Easter picture. In my mind, Dad strides into the frame. His big hand reaches out. One by one we are snatched. Thrown against a wall. Thrown onto the sidewalk. Thrown away.

    • Oh Dawn, thank you for sharing this powerful writing about a family photo. I’m sorry not to respond sooner–it’s very moving–and I hope you’ll keep working with it, even if it’s difficult.


      • Holly,
        Thank you for your encouragement. I have continued working with it and it’s continued to be difficult. Just when I think it in the past, I sit down to work on the essay and boy, fear and rage come up. That’s the miracle of writing. It brings up feeling you don’t even know are there! Sometimes I feel like a mad scientist. Yesterday I got really sad, and at the same time I was thinking, I have to remember what sad feels like so I can write about it.
        With gratitude for you,