Have you ever heard of Ben Shahn? He was an American artist born in Lithuania who did these great social realist works. This one is Restoration, from 1945:
He also did a bunch of New Deal murals.
I’ve always liked his work, but until recently, I had no idea he had also traveled around the United States, along with Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, photographing the American South in 1935 as part of the Resettlement Administration.
While browsing through the Library of Congress collection of historical photos (something I do to get source images for silhouettes for my work), I ran across Shahn’s work and loved many of them.
And then it occurred to me that since some of Shahn’s photos were from Tennessee, I should check and see if he had any from the small town my father was from, Camden.
Amazingly, there were seven pictures from Camden! One was this picture, from October 1935, of men gathered in the town square for the meeting of the local American Legion.
And believe it or not, that man on the far left is my grandfather, John Wesley Harris (you can see him listed as J.W. Harris on the board).
Making this more strange is the fact that I never met my grandfather, and my father never knew him either, since he died when my dad was just under a year old.
I never even saw any pictures of my grandfather until I was in my 20s, and the one or two pictures my dad had were not very clear. This one isn’t either – his face is small and he’s squinting in the sun – but still, it felt like suddenly here was this man looking out at me from the past.
And take a look at his clothes. See how they’re different from the others? He seems to be the only one who was rocking a three-piece suit, and that reinforced one of the few things that were passed down about him in family lore: that he cared about his clothes and liked to wear things like spats.
I wonder what he was thinking about this man taking his photograph.
My father would be born nine months later, and John Wesley would die eleven months after that. One thing is certain: he never could have imagined that one day his granddaughter would find his picture at the Library of Congress. And with a computer!
But this picture and this entire coincidence (that it was Shahn is crazy too – an artist I knew!), made me think about legacy, both in terms of our connection to the past and especially how our lives are going to look to someone almost a hundred years in the future.
What will our story look like? What do we want our next chapter to be?