THIS IS A PROJECT I’VE BEEN PLANNING FOR MANY YEARS. A long time ago – at least a decade, probably more – I bought this little address book at an old paper show. I don’t know why I picked it up, but as soon as I began leafing through the pages inspiration struck, and I knew what I wanted to do.
Any other photographer would have gone straight home and set about shooting. If I still had a studio I might have done just that, but things weren’t so simple. I was still working full-time at the free daily, unsure whether I was a writer taking pictures or a photographer who wrote, and the Some Old Pictures blog was still years in the future. I was also a new father, with precious extra energy to set about a new project. And so the little address book sat in a box on my desk through at least two moves.
Without picking apart the scraps of paper and newspaper clippings folded and stacked and paper-clipped into the pages of the address book, I can only make an educated guess at who Mrs. Edward Cross might have been. By all available evidence she was a widow old enough to have a son who was married in 1928, which makes her a Victorian by birth, someone whose life so far had seen a horse drawn world give way to a motorized one; the sort of woman who needed to keep glove sizes handy.
She was an educated Anglophone whose circle of acquaintance spread itself from Canada to New York City to England and the Bahamas. It’s easy to imagine someone who lived in at least the mid-to-upper strata of the middle class, a woman who was happy to take her husband’s name, and who didn’t keep house as much as run a household, with the aid of a little, well-used book like this, which moved from handbag to writing desk to dining room table. The evidence left behind in her address book evokes a genteel, WASPy world of summer linen, talcum powder, kid leather and polished silver.
The poetry copied by Mrs. Cross across two pages of the fourth picture is Rudyard Kipling – “When Earth’s Last Picture is Painted“, a poem from 1892. For Mrs. Cross, Kipling was a celebrity as much as a writer, a literary luminary of the British Empire who might still have been alive when she copied these lines, probably remembered from her youth, for significant and now wholly obscure reasons.
The sentiments in his poetry would have been unquestionable to someone with the background and social position of Mrs. Edward Cross. Why they were transcribed adjacent to a reference to the Otis Elevator Company of Cleveland, OH is just one of the mysteries of Mrs. Cross’ address book.
I have had a long time to plan these photos. Originally I might have shot them on film, but the digital revolution intervened and I’ve used several makes and models of digital cameras while the address book sat in an old wooden box full of ink bottles and dip pens and other assorted office supplies on my desk.
It was clear from the start that I’d need a macro lens to take really tight shots of details of Mrs. Cross’ book, to capture the scrollwork of her cursive handwriting in different inks, the slivers of yellowing newsprint held in place with rusting metal paper clips.
The gift card I got as an honorarium from B&H Camera for doing their podcast last year paid for a macro ring for my Fuji, and I built a little shooting stand out of scrap wood from Home Depot’s lumber department at the same time. (Off-cuts of wood that they were happy to give away, so that the only cost was a few hinges and screws and a sheet of glass.)
The Globe & Mail is still around today, one of the country’s major dailies though – like all newsprint – much diminished in importance, as is The Ontario Intelligencer, now just the Intelligencer and still based out of Belleville, part of the Postmedia chain. I can only guess the significance of the clippings collected by Mrs. Cross in her little book, or the reasons for the many crossed-out names and addresses.
It’s the thick collection of information that Mrs. Cross pressed between its pages that caught my eye, so dense and frequently consulted that they broke its spine in several places, and rendered many of the pages nearly illegible with corrections and crossings-out and the cacophony of entries in pencil and different colours of ink, written in every direction across the lined pages. Up close it’s even more abstract – a quiet blare of data and notes cut loose from meaning and usefulness.
Since I bought Mrs. Edward Cross’ address book for just $5 all those years ago, I’ve picked up a few scrapbooks at other old paper shows, while keeping an eye out for more little books like these. Since I’ve finally put together what I need for this project, I’m hoping to post new additions to this series every few months, especially now that winter’s moved in early and leaving the house is even less appealing.