The most famous memory journey is the one recorded by Proust “In search of lost times” when the narrator dips a madeleine into tea. The taste of the liquid and crumbs from the cake set off a memory journey that anchors his consciousness in the past.
A Proustian moment for Aaron Schuman, an American photographer and writer, occurs when looking at exhibits in Krakow’s Ethnographic Museum.
The past does not flood back into his mind for what he sees is fascinating but foreign; yet he feels a vague and undefined familiarity with the exhibits.
His great-grandfather came from Poland and he gets to meet a very old woman who knew one of his great-uncles; he recovers fragments of his past.
But “Folk” is less a book about Aaron Schuman’s personal odyssey to discover his roots – that kind of journey has been photographed and written about too often – and more an exploration of the poetic metaphor that is the term ‘folk’.
As Schuman spells out in the book’s afterword, ‘folk’ can refer to members of one’s family and to the traditional culture of a community. It carries with it a sense of ordinary people, not rich or powerful ones but the down-to-earth members of a society, their beliefs and opinions.
“Folk” is testimony to the work of curators who find, catalogue and preserve the traditional arts and cultures of ordinary people.
The photographs have no titles or explanatory captions but a number of them depict the staff of Krakow’s museum going about their business. Material has to be digitized and they are seen photographing and filming but the technology being employed records a subject matter that is fast receding into the past.
One shot embodies this paradox: a truck is stationed somewhere in the countryside, on its roof stands an archivist with camera and tripod, but while the vehicle and ground remain in focus the act of recording appears faint and ephemeral. The past has a sell-by date.
Schuman is taken by a small group from the museum to the area where his great-grandfather lived before emmigrating to the US. Retracing the ground where his ancestors had lived and loved, he feels their presence but all ‘seemed distant, muffled ….Despite my verified ties, I still felt like a stranger to the place’. He feels more at home with his camera, the researchers and ethnographers – they are his folk.
The next day one of the ethnographers writes to him. She noticed that he chose to photograph sickles and she notes how the sickle was used by women, the scythe by men. They were personal tools but in Polish an expression for a crescent moon – sierp księźyca – means ‘sickle of the moon’.
The personal and the pubic coexist in folk art and in the feelings of those who archive the past. In this strangely moving photography project, that began with ethnographic exhibits, memories may prove to be as involuntary as they were for Proust.
Aaron Schuman’s “Folk” is published by NB.