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What Photographs Can Do

What Photographs Can Do


All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt. -Susan Sontag, On Photography


A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away. -Eudora Welty


It's easy to like Jeff Kraus when you first meet him. He wears a ponytail, his features are soft, and his smile welcoming. And even though he lives at the end of a hidden, almost secret driveway, his house is light-filled and open. One of the pre-eminent collectors of antique photography, I had originally met him during a pandemic walk as we shouted our hellos from opposite sides of the road. He was sometimes alone, sometimes with his wife, Jo Ann. And, one day, as I was walking with my friend, Helene, who knows everyone in town and insisted on an introduction, we stopped to talk. Jeff's voice and gestures seemed familiar; I suddenly realized that I know his brother. Over these past difficult months, we continued to talk now and again, and got to know each other, as one does in passing.


I had studied the history of photography in graduate school and when Jeff told me about his collection, I couldn't wait to see it. We agreed that a post-pandemic visit to his house would be a day of celebration. Fully vaccinated, we made the plan. And there he was, and there I was, and there Jo Ann was, all of us unmasked.


I brought my two precious daguerreotypes with me to begin our conversation. Jeff opened them with the precision of a surgeon, his hands as long-fingered and elegant as an artist's. Separating the plated image from the matting and the case, both of which are significant to a collector, appraiser, or curator, he began to talk. Underneath the image there is often a browned piece of paper, he explained, which can sometimes identify the sitter or the photographer. More research then has to be done. "Circa 1850," Jeff said, about halfway through the daguerreotypes' 1840-1860  lifespan. 1850. Now that was a year, the year of the Fugitive Slave Act, ten years prior to the Civil War. My imagination and curiosity clicked. Who were these people who sat for their photograph, a vice-like device holding their heads still for the long minutes it took to achieve an exposure?


We moved on to his formidable collection filling drawers and blanketing the walls. It includes daguerreotypes in various sizes, tintypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visite, and stereoviews.


I was curious about his collecting impulse as my father was also a collector, albeit of paintings. Is it obsession, passion, greed? Is it a way to enter into a past life, a past world, to document historical moments, continue the process of gathering history into accessible stories? I suppose the answers are different for everyone. But what most collectors seem to have in common is the origin story of their collecting; it often begins by accident.


In Jeff's case, his father owned an antiquarian book selling business when he was growing up. Like all kids, he hung out, and was also asked to help out. If photographs arrived in the boxes of books, he asked if he could take them home. That was  the beginning of his fascination, and his personal collection, which continued during his years as an Executive Director of an HIV/AIDS service organization. Retired, he has been able to devote himself full-time to his avocation. He buys and sells, lends items from his collection to museums and film companies, and keeps a well-written blog.


I could have stayed for hours asking questions and perusing numerous files of photographs, each with its singular back story, all of them portals into another time and place. Historians savor such collections as amplifications of the written record; they "read" a photograph's nuances. But what if that historical record disappears? How will scholarship change, how has it already changed now that we only save our writing and photos to the cloud—or  hardware—that  soon becomes obsolete? How will historians retrieve our past?


I asked Jeff this question in a follow-up email; it's been troubling me for years. His answer was not consoling: "It will be basically unretrievable," he wrote. "History will be written as it was before the advent of photography. Whatever degree of objectivity we think exists will diminish, although of course photography is not objective, either in intent or content." 


I hope he is wrong, that a technology will surface to ensure that our private collections—manuscripts, emails, photographs—are available to future historians to document, interpret and reinterpret our lives.



 Jeff Kraus has two websites. For sale items, click here:  www.antiquephotographics.com 


 To view his personal collection, click here:  Jeffrey Kraus's collection site














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Sleeping Babies

We went to have new passport photos taken at Ulloa’s, a local portrait studio between 181 & 182 on Broadway. There aren’t many of these left in Manhattan—we almost went to a drugstore instead—but we live in a mostly Dominican neighborhood and families from the DR are devoted to commemorating their family connections, accomplishments, status, and well-being. The walls of the studio are filled to the ceiling with framed, tinted portraits of important occasions—graduations, weddings, Communions—each one the touchstone of a complex, multi-generational family story. Hard copy is sent home, or carried in suitcases on annual visits.

The shop caters to their clientele with panache. The photographers are dressed in crisp shirts and ties out of respect for their customers and their craft. Compared to the insouciant, disheveled photo-journalists my husband and I have worked with over the years, this earnestness is a refreshing reminder of what it means to start a new life in another country: hard work.

Immigrants and children of immigrants run this small, bi-lingual business. Why not support them? Don’t we all have a story of migration somewhere in our family history? Shall I build a wall around my neighbors? Shall I shun them? These questions are in my mind these days. I cannot abide the hatred that has been unleashed since the recent election. So I sit at my desk today writing about yet another pleasant encounter with immigrants. Writing is my tool of resistance; I am delighted I found this photo shop.

Our photographer was dressed in black, his digital camera an appendage of his arm. I was dreading the results—digital photography is not kind to aging faces—but he did a commendable job of making both of us look good, or good enough for our passports. There was a short wait for the prints, time to ask questions. I was curious about the photos of “resting” babies on the walls as there were so many. These were babies who had fallen asleep during the photo shoot, our photographer explained. Parents usually decide to include them anyway as they are easy to photograph while asleep.

Healthy looking sleeping babies, not dead babies. I was relieved, as these images were reminiscent of dead Victorian infants dressed in bonnets and long gowns. In the earliest days of photography in the mid 1830’s, infant mortality was high, and families commissioned photographs of their short-lived children. The shiny copper Daguerreotypes felt more ethereal than oil paintings, a soul embedded in a photograph forever.  Read More 
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