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Family Album (page 2)
R. Wayne Parsons
Anonymous, “Uncle Neil”, c 1915

This photograph of my mother’s brother Neil dates from around 1915 when he was five or six years old. While it is a typical studio portrait of its time, it nevertheless has much to say to us today.

One is struck by the feminine appearance of the young boy: Mary Jane shoes, the dutchboy haircut, the frilly collar and cuffs of his shirt, the stockings he is wearing –- all of which confirms the point of gender studies scholars that sex roles are as much culturally determined as biologically based. It is also interesting to note that despite the formality of the occasion (a trip to a photographer’s studio for a lower middle class family would have been a special event), the pose is casually informal (note the open mouth, the right leg tucked under the body). Neil is holding an unidentified object in his right hand, no doubt a toy of some sort. The touch I like best is the way he is holding his shoe with his left hand, probably an unchoreographed gesture that is this child’s way of dealing with unease in an unfamiliar situation.

One of the features of this photograph that intrigues me most is the painted backdrop, a rather indefinite composition that nevertheless is suggestive of an Arcadia, an idyllic pastoral environment where life was simple but pleasant, man lived in harmony with nature, and cares were few. But one thing most appropriate for, but absent, in this particular Arcadia are the words “Et in Arcadia ego.” If you are unfamiliar with this Latin phrase there is an excellent entry in Wikipedia. In sum, the phrase is interpreted as a memento mori, a reminder that even in the utopian Arcadia death is always present and cannot be avoided. The phrases appears in several paintings from the Renaissance, most famously two by Poussin from 1627 and 1637. Those of you who saw the marvelous Poussin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum a few years ago would have seen one of these two paintings (assuming you were looking and not just breezing through).

But why, you might ask, do I think “Et in Arcadia ego” should be included in portrait of a young boy? Don’t these words introduce a philosophical dimension that is out of place in a photograph of a child on the threshold of his life? No. Neil died in his tenth year of an unknown illness. In 1920 a doctor’s black leather bag contained few tricks, hardly enough even to diagnose maladies, much less cure them.

I never had an uncle, and Neil never had a life.

There is no Arcadia –- past, present or future. The best we can do is imagine one.

Family Album (page 2) by R. Wayne Parsons

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Soho Photo Gallery