One of my earliest memories is of Richard Nixon announcing his resignation.
By DAN MAGINN
Special to the Star
I was sitting on our colorfully upholstered school bus-sized sofa in St. Joseph in my high-water J.C. Penney jeans with my size 7 Chuck Taylor lowtops sticking out of their slightly flared bottoms.
Why is that guy sweating so much? I remember asking my mom. Over the years, this scene has distilled itself into a single artful tableau, burned permanently in my memory Mom, the sofa, the jeans, the shoes and Dick Nixon, frozen forever together.
This was, of course, pre-digital, before every moment of our lives was documented the era when each click of the Instamatic required a consensus vote of the family. Each precious dog bone-shaped canister of Kodak film contained enough for exactly 24 shots, so you had to be sure. First birthday party? Sure, thats worth a couple shots. Fourth birthday party? Hold your fire.
This spirit of photographic frugality was further compounded by the fact that, as the youngest of four children, my value as a subject was somewhat diminished. Hundreds of pictures document the early lives of my siblings, but by the time I rolled onto the scene in my Big Wheel my parents had lost the documentary spark. There are more photos of Charles Darwin sunning on the beach than there are of me as a kid.
That said, I am profoundly thankful for the photos that were taken. Their scarcity makes them more special. One of the better ones was taken by Ray Lombard, a professional photographer in St. Joseph. In it, I am shirtless with a smile so broad that one can deduce that Mr. Lombard had emitted a handsome fart moments before releasing the shutter.
My three siblings were similarly documented though they did not smile as broadly and the resulting photos, mounted in handsome oak frames, were permanently displayed on the east wall of our main staircase. They marched diagonally downward, in descending order of age.
Ten years ago, when my mom moved from St. Joseph to a much smaller place on the Country Club Plaza, she let me have the four photos. With the approval of my wife I hung them in the same descending order as before on our own staircase wall.
My wife allowed me to do this on the condition that we fill in the space around them with other meaningful images, effectively turning one wall of our stairwell into a two-story family gallery. Since then we have methodically added about 25 photos to the wall, documenting who we are and where we came from.
In my mind, it is fitting that a photographic summary of our lives be located in our staircase. Staircases are inherently dramatic places. You pay a bit more attention in staircases because they are a wee bit dangerous. I have found that in spite of the fact they are only viewed for a fleeting moment, images displayed in a staircase seem a bit more alive than images displayed in more sedentary rooms.
In our house, I have come to think of the staircase and our family gallery as a reset button of sorts. At the end of every day, we tromp up the stairs past the unfolding story of our lives, having experienced 16 hours of life on Earth.
Eight hours later, after those experiences have sunk in, we tromp back downstairs, ready for more. Our experiences change us a little bit every day, as individuals and as a family. These changes, even though they are infinitesimal, can be unsettling. Our gallery, at the juncture between our houses public and private zones, helps keep us grounded.
If youre interested in a family gallery, start by patiently compiling images that document a cross section of your familys Earth experiences. This step is critical dont rush it.
Counterintuitively, the hardest part of the enterprise isnt installation (which is akin to replacing damaged tiles on an orbiting space shuttle) but the process of curating the images that best represent the spirit of your family. How exactly do you edit the mass of images down to the precious few that best tell the story of your shared life?
I have found that, in addition to the obvious biggies that document milestones, the most meaningful photographs are surprisingly unremarkable the ones that record a simple moment in time.
The group shot from your childhood where your brother is looking at the camera and youre looking longingly at his orange Schwinn 10 speed. The one where your dad is sheepishly holding up a wizened cucumber from the garden like its a trophy bass. The one that documents the moment when you quit worrying what others in a pizza joint thought of your enthusiastically screaming, sauce-encrusted, round-faced and thoroughly beautiful baby.
The rest is relatively easy. Once you have compiled and framed the images take some time to map how they will be arranged on the wall. Although this might seem daunting when youre dealing with a wide variety of frame shapes and colors, dont overthink it.
Line a few edges up here and there to bring a bit of order to the composition. Stay loose. Remember youre curating a work in progress, not a museum retrospective.
Finally, a suggestion to help communicate that your past and your present intersect at any given moment: add a small, framed mirror somewhere amidst the composition as a reminder that you have the power to positively affect your future. Gaze into the mirror every morning on your way out the door, compose yourself accordingly, and clomp on.
Reach architect Dan Maginn, principal at El Dorado Inc. in Kansas City, at Eldo.us.