After months of tripping over boxes of photographs, moving them from one closet to another—despite the warning, “moving them is not de-cluttering”—I have at last managed to get most of my grandfather’s photographs digitized. Because my grandparents divorced in the 1920s, when my mother was still a teenager, I hardly knew my grandfather. Now I feel I’m getting to know him for the first time, through his photographs. He lived in Washington, DC, and enjoyed showing visitors the sights when he wasn’t working. His dramatic shots of a monument are among his best, each one hinting at a story and reflecting the Art Deco style he loved.
He came of age at the beginning of the twentieth century, served in World War I, and built a career in the 1930s, working in various aspects of the dairy industry, such as “electro freezer” sales and management. He rarely photographed the typical farm, preferring instead the industrial end of the business, such as large-scale kitchens. (Who wears a fedora in a kitchen? A salesman?)
The new automobile landscape offered many opportunities, and he left a record of the popular signs outside highway restaurants. From the looks of his collection, he did a lot of driving. I’ve never heard of some of these roadside food joints, but the names fit the post World War II mindset.
He had a sense of humor as well. He took photos of the pets in the apartment buildings where he lived, as well as portraits of a number of neighbors and friends as well as relatives. He loved the ducks on a nearby pond and also, apparently, the neighboring deer.
I’m working on his film library for two reasons. I’m curious about what kind of photographer he was, and I’m drawn to photography in my own life. He liked to explore camera techniques, and tried various composite images, including one of himself in a striped shirt arguing with his twin over a set of cameras. I haven’t found the negative for that one yet. (Yes, the photo below is of a hand holding a wrecked car.)
But I learned something else from exploring his work. His best images are modern but also hint at a story. Even the photo of an empty room in the evening, with a book lying on a footstool and a newspaper mounding on the floor, hints at more than is captured in that one image. Along with the images, I now carry the suggested story ideas.
I have used photography as a catalyst in at least one mystery. In When Krishna Calls, Anita Ray is drawn into the disappearance of a hotel employee and the death of her husband when she discovers a message wrapped around the battery in her camera. She discovers another clue on the memory card. In other Anita Ray mysteries, she filters information from the tourists who visit her photo gallery in the resort.
There are a number of ways to use a camera and photography in crime fiction. Thanks to my grandfather’s collection (and my own and those of other relatives), I have a wealth of material to work with.
To find the Anita Ray and Mellingham novels go to: