The Photograph as Writing Prompt or What to do about Marcel Proust

Wilber Merton Deming, local photographer, and four Winsted businessmen circa 1893

… the title “In Search of Lost Time” gets to the heart of what the book’s about, because this very long novel by this very strange Frenchman is mostly a consideration of how time, as it were, slips through our fingers, how we are alive but most of the time not properly attuned to the world around us. In other words, we’re constantly wasting our time. — Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, interviewed on NPR (Time, Memory and Proust) December 2005.


It begins simply enough with two photographs—one of my grandfather, Nicholas Vreeland in army uniform, taken upon his arrival in France in 1918. He didn’t see any action, having arrived just in time for the armistice. Get off the boat, have your portrait taken, get on the boat and come back home. But this is not about him. It’s about two photographs and what to do with them. You see, we’re culling; we’re going through 43 Tupperware tubs of materials that have been neglected in a U-Haul storeroom for the past several years. We pay rent for that space, and now it comes to mind, how much more than money we pay for the objects of our neglect.

Alanna sorts clothing, utensils, small appliances that will go to the thrift stores, and stuff that will be given another life and put to use again. Stuff. That word, a vague catch-all. I’m tempted to apologize for it, but think it to be the most appropriate. Then there’s the other pile, other stuff that will be re-stored and reinstated as objects of neglect for another five to ten year sentence. Maybe less, it’s not going back to the U-Haul rental space; it may sit protected in a not-so-temporary-yet-not-so-permanent hiding place like behind a sofa. Out of sight may be out of mind, but five years is a stretch for exercising neglect in a living space.

The thought of a closet may have crossed your mind. Poor farmers built this house which, more than a century ago had but four rooms. A generation ago, an addition was tacked on. Now it’s a cottage with two closets. Both are stuffed.(That’s what you do with stuff, the noun. You can use stuff to satisfy stuff, the verb.)  There’s a spare bedroom that’s stuffed as well. It’s a store room except when we have an overnight visitor. Then it’s a guest room for one willing to sleep amid filing cabinets, chests of drawers, and other dubious furniture with overpopulated and overcrowded surfaces.

Alanna sorts through the tubs and hands me the two photographs with a gesture that says, “Do something with these.” I remove the portrait of my grandfather from its frame and scan it. The frame goes in the trash. Perhaps I should give the photograph to the Winsted Historical Society in the town where I grew up, and where Nick lived most of his life. The society might be interested but I have reservations. It seems to be more devoted to displays of Revolutionary War memorabilia. There is also the Connecticut Historical Society. Historical societies and public archives are great places to which decision-making dilemmas—such as what-to-do-with Old—Nick  can be passed. And I can hide the digital image on a hard drive, out of sight, out of mind. Until … I don’t want to go there.

It’s the second image that takes me down the rabbit-hole. In it, five men are seated around a table. I don’t know if they have been arranged with their heights taken into consideration. I don’t know if they have been posed. “Al, would you tilt your head a bit to the left? George, cigar in the right side of your mouth. Yes, that’s it.” Five men. The one on the left, Wilber Deming, sets himself apart, not by distance, but by appearance. He’s wearing a worker’s cap while the other four are sporting bowlers, or derbies as they were called in Winsted. Deming holds a long-stemmed pipe while the others have cigars clamped in their jaws.

A unique feature of this photograph is that the photographer is in the image. Wilber Merton Deming (1851-1916) was a well-know local photographer. Some of his images are in private collections, and some have been catalogued by the Connecticut Historical Society.  On this day, Deming positioned himself, and someone else pressed the cable release activating the shutter on his camera. I know this because of the penciled notes on its back. Howard Merton Deming, Wilber’s son, wrote in August 1943:

Picture probably taken before 1893, perhaps by Will Ackley, brother-in-law to Deming. Photo gallery was on the third floor of wooden block opposite residence of E.P. Jones. Picture found among effects of Edward R. Holmes, died 1943.

I’m taken as much by the notes as I am by the image, and my interest in the complementarity of photography and texts is rekindled. (My earlier blogged essays on this subject include, “Work that Matters and the Interdependence of Photography and Texts”, “Photographs and Texts — Functional Codependency”, Photo Stories — a Follow Up to Functional Codependency” about The Old World and Other Stories [House of Anansi Press] in which Cary Fagan takes photographs as writing prompts for short stories, “Fine Art, Photography and Texts: Bieke Depoorter.” Those essays are no longer available on line.) I’m particularly taken by Howard’s description of Charlie Chase. He notes:

Son of D.B. Chase, Plumber. Brother to Nettie Chase, home florist Prospect St. Chase shop was where Colt’s Block is now. After D.B. died, Charlie was with Wills Norton as Chase & Norton. Charlie ran Steamer Carrie for some time in its later years.

Steamer Carrie? That takes me deeper down the rabbit hole. The fruit of time spent in subsequent research informs me that the “Carrie” was a passenger boat on Highland Lake, a pleasure resort in the days when the town was prosperous and had a future, long before the summers I spent swimming and fishing there..

Take a look at Charlie. I see an attitude there, perhaps a braggadocio that wants to conceal the risks he takes as an entrepreneur. See how he’s the only one with his arms folded over his chest somewhat defensively. I see a guarded man with a lot of energy—a gamesman, a scrapper.

Howard tacks two words to end his notes about Charlie—“Shot himself.” Oh? There are branches deeper down the rabbit hole. Howard may have had it wrong.

Winsted Man Probably a Suicide

WINSTED, Conn., Dec. 14.—Charles M. Chase, aged thirty-five, who has served four times as Warden of the borough, was found dead in his room at the Hotel Winsted this morning. The fact that the gas was found turned on full, while electricity is used for lighting purposes, coupled with alleged business trouble, leads the officials to believe that he committed suicide. (The New York Times, Thursday, December 15, 1898)

Howard may have had it wrong, but he took the time in 1943 to make the notes—notes that suggest that he might have been settling the estate of Edward Holmes—notes that cause me to pause and reflect that this is what we’re doing in going through the Tupperware tubs—settling our estate.

Wilber Deming took the time also. In 1893 his large format bellows camera would have been mounted on a sturdy wooden tripod. He took the time to work the glass plates, to position the men ensuring a space for himself. He took the time to brief his brother-in-law on operating the camera. And how long did the men hold the pose? Deming is cradling the wrist of his hand that holds the pipe as though for a longer exposure.

Time. Two photographs and half my day is gone, as will be a bit of tomorrow and the next day. That column inch from a century-old New York Times didn’t happen to be waiting for me in my inbox, didn’t happen to be a dinging notification on my phone. I paid for it in time. It occurs to me that everything we own, each one of our possessions carries with it a certain measure of time. And I wonder, what is the why of this? Why am I so keen to piecing together a picture of my home town—a town that was swept away in a flood when I was nine years old. The Flood of ’55 appears occasionally in my writing as do places and incidences of my early life.  Through that writing I’ve come to realize that the waters that raged down Main Street still affect me, pulling some things below the surface while momentarily allowing others to come into view. The flood too is time. Raging.

And then there is Proust. What to do about Marcel Proust. Apparently he wrote of such matters. Consider the translations of his titles. Remembrance of Things Past.  In Search of Lost Time.

Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years. – “ The Guermantes Way”

Would reading his work help me to understand the why of my compulsion? Remembrance sits on my shelf posing as another dilemma. This volume is the first of three that complete the work. It runs more than a thousand pages and the bulk of it puts me off the thought of beginning to read—a thought that is accompanied by a doubt that I would live long enough to see it through. I’m tempted. In the meantime, the two photographs sit on my desk waiting a new, as yet undecided, destination and contributing to a clutter indicative of my disorganization and procrastination.

I take up the image of the five men once again. I’ve given little attention to its most perplexing feature. See the propped-up hatchet on the table? What is the why of it? Does it have anything to do with Charlie? His future? Is it a symbol of a secret fraternity like the Brethren of the Hatchet? Or have the men gathered to witness the settlement of a dispute and the burying of a hatchet? Another rabbit-hole down which I descend, losing time and finding no light.

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