Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Old Photos Rediscovered

In the 1950s in Hendersonville, North Carolina, Ellen Macdonald accompanied her mother on summer evenings to visit Mary Davis, a retired high school art teacher. Ellen remembers sitting spellbound as Ms. Davis recounted travel adventures on the back roads of Mexico -- stories accompanied by color slides and black and white photographs.  As a high school student Ellen, now a Cuernavaca resident entering her 70s, dreamed of travel adventures of her own in that beautiful country.  

Her wish was granted:  Ellen refers to Mexico as "the place of my dreams." Her dreams are still evolving and fifty-five years later Davis' photographs are still part of the story. At Ellen's instigation an exhibit of Ms. Davis' photographs taken in the 1940s and 50s will  soon be on display in the library of the Tec de Monterrey's Cuernavaca campus. 

Ellen's story unfolds as a southern tale worthy of Eudora Welty.  The setting was sultry southern summer evenings spent sipping sweet tea enjoying carefree chatter swinging on the wide porch of a rambling old home passed through generations of the same family.

Mary Davis incorporated some of her photographs into a 1963 book titled Mexican Jewelry.  The pictures in the book are black and white yet Ellen recalled the originals "were Kodachrome slides, with the sharp colors and clearly-defined images that made that process famous."

Ellen traveled to Mexico to study Spanish in the winter of 1977 and returned in 1987 for a year of graduate internship.  She married in Mexico and didn’t return to North Carolina until the marriage ended in 1995. 

Back in Hendersonville, Ms. Davis' house remained in her family's hands twenty-six years after her death.  When finally sold in 1997, a family member found a cardboard box on the floor of Ms. Davis' closet.  There were nearly a thousand slides taken on her trips to Mexico!  Most had notations on the mounts about the person or scene in the photograph.

"This was a treasure of memories and it was given to me!" says Ellen, adding "I resolved to go through the box carefully one day."  One day wasn’t that day; Ellen stored the unopened but treasured box close by. 

Ten years later Ellen sold her own home in Hendersonville and discovered the box of slides on the floor in her own closet.  She had forgotten all about them.  A month later she was diagnosed with breast cancer and after surgery faced months of chemotherapy.  "I was thin, weak and scared, and during the long winter nights of that year and the next I began to look at the slides.  I was astounded by the beauty of the images.  It comforted me to hold them up to the light, one by one, and imagine myself well again, sitting in the Mexican sun on a flower-filled patio.  I resolved to return to Mexico as soon as I was able."

Happily she was back in Mexico the following fall with the slides and photographs and a resolve to get them published.  Her first attempt was to print fine note cards.  The editor with whom she worked suggested a coffee table book instead.  The project became more and more overwhelming -- and expensive -- as time progressed.  She chose the best slides and separated them into themed chapters.  A breakthrough came last year with a visit with the chairman of the Communications Department of the Tec de Monterrey. Her book project was accepted as the project for a photography course to be offered in the Spring 2012 semester.  Tec students would select and restore the slides and the end product would be a prototype to show to publishers in Mexico and the U.S.

“I had a choice.  Continue to try and do it on my own or give it away to young, talented Mexicans who never saw this world.  It was a world that for the most part disappeared even before their parents’ memory.   I chose the later and watched excitedly as Imelda Hernandez's students became interested, then committed.  I now have a relationship with these young people and their professor, so proud of their project.  It's no longer only Mary Davis’ story, or my story, it's theirs as well.  I feel like I passed on the gift given me."  

“Each student restored thirty photographs.  The exhibit will be the before and after of the photograph that most caught the eye and heart of each student accompanied by an account of getting to know the photograph, having a relationship with it. 

“The box and the thousand slides have taken me on a journey with twists and turns that I never imagined.  I think that behind the book there is a story that is even more interesting than the book itself."

Ellen, who I know as a regular attendee of my Wednesday night current events class at Cemanahuac, is active in both Spanish and English writing workshops in Cuernavaca. The Mary Davis photo exhibit will move from the Tec de Monterrey to other locations.  I'll keep you informed of dates and locations.

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