What the heck are they doing?

Image A. "Spirit of Wyoming"

We all have them. Yes, those stacks of old photographs passed down to us. They are images from someone else’s life; what can be daunting is that these are pictures we have to appraise even when we know nothing about what they mean. Often disorganized, unidentifiable, and fading, we can’t quite bring ourselves to put them out for the mid-week trash collection. It just isn’t who we are.

In going through my grandmother Alta Sage Lee Dixon’s old photographs, I understand that many of the people in her pictures may always remain unknown to me. Yet I can’t help wondering if there aren’t patterns in her collection. I’m resolved to try and put these “pictures of unknowns” into at least a few “photographic categories.” After all, this is my grandmother’s life – so maybe if I understand how she pictured her own collection, I might understand more about her.

I decided I wouldn’t try and categorize any professionally done photographs, my reason being that I wanted to look deeper into the pictures and not  just study random faces – my hope being to see what people on ‘both sides’ of the picture might be experiencing. In addition to this, I didn’t want to approach any of her photographs in terms of “What are they thinking?” To do so just doesn’t seem fair. Rather, I’ve decided instead to go with a few variations on the question “What the heck are they doing?”

Image B. "The Kodak Baby"

I’ve discovered that largest category of photos in my grandmother’s collection is that of babies and small children. This must be a universal rule in for picture taking – the challenge of capturing a child’s image.  Image A, above, was my favorite. I mean, who can resist a little girl sitting on a car with her brother behind the wheel? Since I don’t know who the little girl is (I suspect it is Cousin Edna…), I’ve decided to call this photograph the Spirit of Wyoming as her confident stare (and brother’s mischievousness) reflect those rough and tumble days of my grandmother’s home state – and her youthful spirit.

Image B I found a bit disturbing, at least by today’s standards. I’m guessing that whoever took the picture didn’t leave the baby at the Kodak store, although the baby does look a wee bit abandoned. I suspect the owner or employee of this establishment thought it expedient to pose the baby thusly – maybe to help sell more film? Is it only a coincidence that this is the shop where my grandmother first worked?

Image C. "Children of the Corn"

Image C: Whoever took this image may have forgotten that there was a child hiding in the squash patch. (The cat does not look happy to have been included in this photographer’s mélange.) I have to admit that I like this picture overall as it has a sort of “Where’s Waldo” feel to it. 

Image D. "Lady on the stairs"

Image D brings a whole new meaning to “Would you leave your child with her?” I found almost everything about this picture to be peculiar. The child looks as glum as the dark light surrounding the woman at the top of the stairs. Even the fascia’s scalloped trim looks menacing to me. I’m disturbed by the idea that my grandmother owned this picture and even more so that the lady and poor child are probably my kin.

Image E. "The Stalwart Sage Women"

Okay, I had to include this one, which probably isn’t fair to do. I do recognize a few of these handsome women (at least the younger ones), but there is something a bit unsettling about seeing my grandmother and my great-aunts (yes, I said “great,” not “grand”) in wading boots. Whatever are they setting about to do? I think it is safe to say that this was not a glamour shot. Indeed, why must they all look so rugged? (Sorry, Nana…)

Image F. "The Great Outdoors"

After staring at Image F for quite some time, and not recognizing one soul, I realized that I must be looking at a wedding party – by a small flower in the bride’s hair. I do suspect that one of the men standing to the very far right may be the sheriff, as they all have that lawman’s look. Perhaps a shotgun wedding?

Image G. "What the heck are they doing?"

Last but certainly not least is my prize contender for “What the heck are they doing?” I give the photographer credit for capturing the exact moment “junior” fires off his shot gun. I don’t understand the whole teepee thing or why a family that lived in a perfectly good log cabin (see Image F above) needed to pitch a tent!


Photographs from the collection of Alta Sage Lee Dixon (1909–2004).

Jeff Record

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.View all posts by Jeff Record