Light imprints on chemically treated paper
by german fernandez. Published on May 17, 2022
Tampering here and there with chemicals, one French morning of December winter in 1827, Joseph Nicephore Niepce caught the light, and with it, the shape of the house in front of his window. Truth be told, it took him not one but many days to fix what was still a work in progress, and even then, this was not called photography, but labelled with a word with a flavour of a makeshift improvisation or a complex scaffolding of something still not finished or a geometrical apparatus; a "heliograph".
One night, in the balmy summer of March in 1993, my grandfather left us a handful of pictures of his life and his world. Then- as now-there was not much information I could have about them. In black and white, brownish or sepia tones, those images come from other times, from different realities, from spaces beyond the grasp of my stretched nostalgia of the living, of the tangible, of the real, of my breath and my pulse; so different from the selfie-stream-live-share world of today. Yet, here -just in case- briefly and somehow, I would like to describe three -maybe four- of them, for reasons that will become evident.
Incognito portraits, of the several that remain, unknown, forgotten, among the things I brought with me when I left his home.
I don't know who they were. If I remember correctly, they probably belonged to a family linked to my great-grandfather, Bernuy. There are, therefore Cantos-Bernuy and Bernuy-Cantos. Some of their traits, as always, remain scattered among us, subtle but present in the faces, maybe the eyes. Is someone from my grandfather's family? Maybe.
One picture is taken in open daylight, probably outside a porch, somewhere in probably Lima, in those years probably still a small city surrounded by agricultural lands. My grandfather, Mauro, son of Nicanor, (born in 1913, at the end of the dreamy European Belle Epoque and of what was called in Peru the contrasted Aristocratic Republic of a small and constrained Lima, but also one year before the First World War and still in the age of empires) here looks incredibly young, tanned by the sun, in the company of three women I still haven't identified - except perhaps the woman who puts his hand on her shoulder: it could be my grandmother, but I couldn't be sure, which makes it more frustrating - in what probably was a family photo, from which the context has been lost, perhaps irretrievably. This frustrating ignorance of a past, that was lively as these seconds and minute assigned to me right now, is one of the reasons why I posted the image on social media, with an uncertain hope of preventing the image, like everything -like me-from disappearing.
This is important, because I didn't know it, and now I experience it, that memory is fragile, blurry and easy to fade. As time passes, I saved and shared them, before the sands and waves of time erase them in front of my frustrated eyes.
But lets go on while we can. In another picture, printed on a metallic plaque, a grown child poses quietly, seated on a chair. He is dressed in a middle toned suit, but with short pants. In the background, a painted landscape is blurred. He is probably Nicanor, I guess, my great-grandfather, as a child, sitting and posing like an adult, before adolescence was invented. Next to this metal plate, pockmarked and rusted, was a glass negative print. Both were hidden in the thick wooden trunk that my grandfather kept under his bed, all full of memories and vestiges of the previous generation, perhaps guardian of those paternal memories banished by the rest of his siblings from family memory. Perhaps if he read these lines he would be upset. I hope not.
A third picture shows Don Nicanor's electoral paper.
Nicanor appears there, with a big moustache, with the hair divided by a line in the middle, watching the camera with his eyes wide open. Nicanor once had a horse. And many lawsuits. With his brothers, because of the inheritance from his father, Andres. Andres, who at some point had a metal foundry at the outskirts of the old city, near the Plaza de la Exposicion and the old city's prison, built in times of Ramon Castilla and demolished in the 70s. Nicanor also was a divorcee, or a separated husband. My grandfather never accepted the stepfather who replaced Nicanor. The strong character of his mother didn't help either. A character, we just said, such that she took the reins of the house and the life of her children far beyond their childhood and beyond her death. But not for my grandfather. He left his house to live with his elder sister Victoria, already married, unlike the rest of his siblings, who lived in their mother's house, together, gathered for the rest of their lives.
This is very much a work in progress, I know for sure. I still remember the leather suitcase, packed to the brim with sealed, typed and handwritten papers, yellowed, passing evidence of those fraternal procedures. My grandfather kept it jealously, until the last day of it. My mother can't wait to get rid of her, if she hasn't already, as she told me she would do the last time. Yet for some of all these facts, and others, I only have some other evidence on yellowish paper, handwritten or typed, that I have been able to rescue from oblivion, and I realize that everything I know about him fits into these small paragraphs.