Photos as ownership and nostalgia

One of the joys of seeing live theater is feeling certain ideas reverberate with your own experiences. I have not been to Japan, and yet on seeing Naomi Iizuka’s Concerning Strange Devices from the Distant West, I immediately thought of my vintage tinted photos of Yellowstone National Park.

The play is about many things, not just the complexity of interactions between East and West, but about our attempts to capture and possess things in a photograph—as though we can stave off our own temporality by keeping an image of something as it was or as we would like it to have been.

I think most people have possessiveness about the place they grew up, no matter how complicated their relationship with that place becomes.

Photo of Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring by Maren Robinson.
Photo of Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring by Maren Robinson.

I grew up in southern Idaho, and we spent some time every summer in Yellowstone National Park—so much time that my sisters and I experienced a possessive familiarity and a nascent contempt for all the tourists who inundated our favorite trails every summer. Yellowstone possesses everything that makes it the famous tourist spot it remains: astonishing natural beauty, impressive and often dangerous wildlife, and geothermal features that create deep turquoise pools, explosive geysers, bright orange bacterial mats and trees that have turned into stone.  It is no wonder that the American Indians who first lived around and knew the Yellowstone region thought it was a sacred place.

In that typical egotism of childhood, which does not know the irony of feeling possessive about a national park, my sisters and I felt this was our place and all these other people who wanted to see this natural wonder were just getting in and out of cars automatically, failing to appreciate what this place meant to us.  This prompted in my sisters and me some unusual behavior. One summer, we started a game in which we would stand together and point—to see how many cars we could get to pull over to look for nothing. It was an advanced form of “made you look,” played with unwitting tourists eager for the next photo opportunity.

Once, when we had all started learning French, I remember my sisters and me spending a day in the park speaking only French to each other until we could get American tourists around us to comment on the adorable little French girls.

These games reflected that profound sense of ownership which allowed us to neglect the beauty around us for the sake of games involving tourists who we were certain couldn’t possibly share our sense of connection to this place, tourists who were unlikely to ever know that we were mocking them. The word reflected it all—they were on a tour, but we lived there, we understood this place.

When I moved to Chicago and left the beauty that had surrounded me for 22 years of my life, I found myself anxious and nostalgic about leaving the West.

A photo of Yellowstone's Opal pool by Maren Robinson next to a hand-colored vintage photograph of Yellowstone by Frank J. Haynes.
A photo of Yellowstone’s Opal pool by Maren Robinson next to a hand-colored vintage photograph of Yellowstone by Frank J. Haynes.

Before my departure my parents bought me a couple of vintage framed photographs of Yellowstone taken by Frank J. Haynes. He was the official photographer of the Northern Pacific Railroad, who was hired to take photos to advertise to the first tourists who would come by rail and carriage to Yellowstone. The first photographs were black and white. Later they were hand tinted to try and reflect the unique natural beauty of the park. The sky or the turquoise pools are rendered faint and wistful by the pale blue watercolor painted on them.

These are not images of the Yellowstone as I know it: bright pools, high mountain sun, the scents of pine and sulfur, and fine, powdery dust on my boots. These are nostalgic images of a place I loved and lost. They also have the accrued memories of countless tourists who visited this amazing place once and bought a photograph home to put on the wall, which some child or grandchild got rid of and I picked up second hand in an antique shop or on eBay.

Maren Robinson's collection of vintage Yellowstone photos.
Maren Robinson’s collection of vintage Yellowstone photos and guidebooks by Frank J. Haynes.

My collection of Haynes photographs grew. The framed ones are all above my couch in a sort of shrine to Yellowstone, but I also have boxes of postcards and books filled with these images. My childhood sense of ownership had morphed into a collector’s passion for ephemera. The word itself is key—ephemeral. Photographs are an attempt to capture a moment that has passed, a beautiful place that is no longer present, that is not mine and never can be mine. They are the vehicles of nostalgia.

I have gone back to visit Yellowstone several times and I have taken my camera with me. It was a revelation to have a good camera and be able to capture images as I saw them. I look at those photos with some regularity, but I have never blown them up and put them on the walls. I leave my vintage photos of Yellowstone on the wall because they represent it as it is to me, a beautiful, magical place, tinged by memory and longing and nostalgia. They are the images of my feeling about the place rather than the place itself. Still when someone mentions home I am as likely to think of Yellowstone as I am any other place I’ve lived.

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