Photos of the unknown develop some mysteries

Photographer mines the memories of another, turning negatives into positives

Family Matters

September 26, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

There she is, a snazzy Baltimore pinup girl, circa 1940s or early 1950s. Her dark hair is swept up and she wears sunglasses that complement her smile. Her bathing suit, modest by current standards, nevertheless celebrates a lean, well-proportioned physique.

Who is she?

For Bethany Obrecht, she is a clue in a photographic mystery set in East Baltimore, one that she would love to solve.

Last March, when her mother's boyfriend returned home from Stoner's Auction in Glen Rock, Pa. with a box lot of assorted stuff, Obrecht pored through its contents. She found several rolls of black and white negatives stored in aluminum film canisters.

Obrecht, a junior photography major at the Rhode Island

School of Design, was intrigued. "My curiosity just took over," she says.

Obrecht, 21, took the negatives from her Lutherville home back to school, where she spent evenings from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. printing them in the darkroom. During those long, late hours, a Baltimore family's life came to light.

"This is the first frame," Obrecht says, pointing to a murky image of a man taking his own picture. As he peers down into the lens, his spectacles gleam. The man, Obrecht realized, was the photographer who had taken the photos she had discovered. "He became my person. I kind of got to know him and I became very attached to what he was doing."

The undated cache of negatives became the inspiration for a major photography project that semester.

As Obrecht worked in the darkroom, dodging and burning to bring the photos, many damaged by age, to life again, she mined an East Baltimore time capsule.

The pinup girl (she's actually a woman) appears in several frames at different family events. Obrecht's photographer also caught a parade with what appears to be a tank rolling through town. There's a streetscape of The Block, featuring the since-razed Rivoli Theater. The marquee touts the 1948 film The Hunted, starring Preston Foster, and a film called Whirlwind Raiders (also 1948), starring Charles Starrett as the Durango Kid.

Capturing a city, a time

The photographer turned his gaze as well on the snowy rooftops of rowhouse communities, a woman ironing, a new baby, a pet monkey, laundry blowing in the breeze, boats moored by the Recreation Pier, and a corner store tableau. The best are reminiscent of the work of photographer Aubrey Bodine, who was also drawn to scenes of daily life in Baltimore.

"It just gives you a whole sense of the time," says Obrecht, who conjectures that the photographer used "some sort of Brownie camera."

He "really had a sense of documentary," she says. "I connected with him, which is really weird."

Tears and missing corners on the negatives added to their character, Obrecht says. "I embraced these things."

As she worked, Obrecht uncovered the unknown photographer's shots of kitschy knickknacks, a bottle of Old Drum whiskey (distilled in Maryland), a furry head shot of Dinah Shore on television -- all evocative bookmarks that would spark the memories of Baltimoreans of a certain age.

The photographer's images of daffodils, beach excursions, two blackbirds in the snow, big old cars buried in a blizzard, a family in its Easter finest, might feel familiar to anyone who has recorded their own domestic universe. "I think everyone can connect to these somehow," Obrecht says.

'A delicate task'

To a certain extent, Obrecht said she felt like a voyeur as she explored the forgotten negatives. In a way, "I had no business [re-envisioning the] man's archive," she says. Her love of old things prevailed. "I thought some of his pictures were beautiful."

While printing the negatives and mounting them in a vintage photo album, Obrecht struggled with unanswered questions posed by the photographs. She constructed her own story about the man and his family, while honoring the real story she may never know.

"I was changing the context; I was making it my own," Obrecht says. It's a delicate task. "You had to be really careful about what you're trying to do."

Obrecht wonders how the negatives met their fate in a wet field, where people picked through odd lots of others' discarded belongings. Perhaps the photographs, if not the negatives, are in the family's possession. Perhaps they aren't.

"These were sacred to him," she says of the family shutterbug. Their haphazard path from family to field, "makes me wonder where are all my pictures are going to go."

Obrecht's found story is "still a work in progress." It would be "really interesting to continue, to find [these people] and photograph them myself," she says. "Even sit down and talk to them."

The photographer makes occasional appearances in Obrecht's album. By the final page, a period of several years has passed. In the final frame of the album, he has aged. There, Obrecht's investigation runs cold.

Who is he? What became of him and his smiling family?

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