I chanced upon the Russian photographer Sergey Chilikov when looking for the photo on the cover of Beirut's "Gulag Orkestar." You can find an archive of his photos here.
I'd forgotten the beauty of simple snapshots like this, photos without the pretense of memory. These are the ordinary people of what was once the Second World. These anonymous vintage snapshots are connections to a world I will never experience, will never see in any form other than a grainy, faded image, names forgotten or maybe even never learned by the photographer.
It is by mere accident that one of these pictures achieved fame. In an interview, Zach Condon said he first saw the cover slipped out of a book in a library in Leipzig. A very personal photo becomes universal, transformed from a memory-machine into an image in the public consciousness.
A photo, taken either for a personal collection or a now-extinct daily newspaper, is uploaded to the Internet, separated from its origins by yet another degree, and disseminated to a largely undiscerning global public.
Because holding a photograph and looking at it on a computer screen are different experiences, even though a photograph is "supposed" to be a crystalline representation of reality. The material photograph is a more direct link to another era, unmediated by a contemporary piece of technology. It's sepia-toned or washed out, and it smells of junk drawers and the dull, metallic smell of silver frames on dusty mantles.
This tells me the photograph is not merely an image, but takes on a life of its own that digital images, unless they're printed out, will never have. Think about all the ancient family photos you've doubtless seen on the shelves of tract homes and McMansions in outlying suburbs of American cities. They're most likely the only things more than 50 years old in a great many homes, a solitary fragment of past existences. We burn our cities to the ground, we build our new houses to last a single generation and yet, amid contemporary suburbia, the individual's line of memory is preserved as a photo, set in a respectable position on a matte-painted particle-board shelf in a white-carpeted den.
Despite the very American and very Protestant environment, it reminds me of those Chinese Confucians who honor their ancestors as a fount of authenticity and truth, even amid the rise and fall of dynasties and the building of 100,000-man factories in Shenzhen. The Confucian attitude seems to be that the truth of a righteous life is beyond material, beyond memory; it exists in an impossibly stable and a priori vacuum. Whatever sound and fury happens in China-- capitalism, Communism, and capitalism again-- that which Confucius called "the way" floats above, immaterial, impassive.
It's been years since I looked through any old snapshots of my own family. It's helpful to consider the photo as a universal subject when you've forgotten the snapshots that are supposed to mean the most to you. When, in some distant future date, I look again on pioneer great-grandfathers and aunts in beehive hairdos, what will I see? What will I feel? What truth will I ascertain? Will I feel a primordial connection to some ancestral imagination? Or will they simply be faded scraps of paper, chemical tracings on thin cardboard moldering in shoeboxes in a house 1500 miles away.