This week, I am back in my uncle’s studio and we are working on a new project (our last one can be found here). I recently found my great grandmother’s recipe notebook and decided to compile photographs of each page into a PDF for my family.
At first I thought I would just transcribe the recipes, but after doing these test shots I realized that to merely preserve the written information, to take the content out of its context, would be to deny myself and my family an essential part of this heirloom. These recipes, whether they are good or not (I have not tested any yet), connect us to Gammy through taste, yes, but also through the visual and tactile experience that her notebook provides. I want my family to decipher her handwriting as they cook, to interpolate the smudges and food splatters, mistakes and crossed out thoughts, the color of the pages and the way that the book was bound; in short, to appreciate the beauty of the artifact in its entirety. Of course, the only way to divide an extremely fragile notebook among 50 or more descendants is to digitize it. Something this beautiful shouldn’t have to be sequestered in an archival box, and a digital copy makes it accessible to all and fit for the task of everyday use. I love the idea of reading this on an ipad. It would provide a clean, modern and highly functional presentation of something aged, delicate and hopelessly ephemeral, and I find great enjoyment in those kind of contrasts.
I’ve been ruminating over these questions since embarking on this endeavor: what is an heirloom? What is worth preserving? Will an heirloom like this loose some of its sentiment if everyone has it, and in a reduced form, or could it become more precious because we can all share in its experience together?
If I believed that the value of the book lay only in its recipes, then I obviously would not go to great lengths to photograph it. But if I’ve learned anything through all this archival work, it is that everything is ephemeral, nothing lasts, and as fragile and vulnerable as an old notebook may seem, it is the thoughts of the person who wrote in it that are the most endangered. And what about the snatches of stories, the well guarded family secrets, and the many names of old friends that we are told but never seem to remember? If we accept that we can’t save everything, then what should we strive to preserve, and what can we let go of?