A photo negative slipped out of a book and I used the window as a light box to see the image. It's my mother and her mother sitting in the garden of the family home in London, always known as 'three-two-two' .
(I blipped it here).
Curiously, they are both wearing checked dresses which show up as black and white although in reality they may have been different colours. My mother, probably in her late teens, would surely have made hers, striving to achieve a elegant, sophisticated effect. It has a dark collar, cap sleeves and is adorned with an artificial flower... it's quite short (this must have been in the late '20s.) My grandmother is wearing a comfortable house dress no doubt from one of the many department stores at which she would have had 'an account'.
Photographic negatives once accompanied their positives like shadows and were never thrown away although only a tiny fraction were ever used to make copies. But over the years they have became un-moored from their prints and have accumulated like dead leaves, forming loose drifts in envelopes and drawers. Now I simply shuffle them away for disposal but the odd one like this escapes to offer a glimpse into a past rendered monochrome by an emulsion of silver salts sensitive to the light - the yin of the yang.
I found a poem by Chinese-American poet Arthur Sze (pronounced See), new to me but now I really like his work.
A man hauling coal in the street is stilled forever.
Inside a temple, instead of light
a slow shutter lets the darkness in.
I see a rat turn a corner running from a man with a chair trying to smash it,
see people sleeping at midnight in a Wuhan street on bamboo beds,
a dead pig floating, bloated, on water.
I see a photograph of a son smiling who two years ago fell off a cliff
and his photograph is in each room of the apartment.
I meet a woman who had smallpox as a child, was abandoned by her mother
but who lived, now has two daughters, a son, a son-in-law;
they live in three rooms and watch a color television.
I see a man in blue work clothes whose father was a peasant
who joined the Communist party early but by the time of the Cultural Revolution
had risen in rank and become a target of the Red Guards.
I see a woman who tried to kill herself with an acupuncture needle
but instead hit a vital point and cured her chronic asthma.
A Chinese poet argues that the fundamental difference between East and West
is that in the East an individual does not believe himself
in control of his fate but yields to it.
As a negative reverses light and dark
these words are prose accounts of personal tragedy becoming metaphor,
an emulsion of silver salts sensitive to light,
laughter in the underground bomb shelter converted into a movie theater,
lovers in the Summer Palace park.