Bil Browning

What Should I Do with the Unsmiling Woman?

Filed By Bil Browning | January 14, 2014 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: art project, found photos, thrift store finds, Unsmiling Woman

barbara-in-fur.jpgLast month I was browsing in one of my favorite thrift stores when I came across a handful of photos from the early 70s of a mysterious woman who fascinated me. She was fashionably dressed and the casual snapshots of her spoke to a natural grace and beauty that immediately captivated me.

I bought a photo of her on vacation and another one of her and someone I assumed was her husband sitting under a Christmas tree. She wasn't smiling in either picture and the clerk mentioned that she was in several photos; the staff had nicknamed her "The Unsmiling Woman."

A couple of weeks later, I stopped in again with some friends. I'd told them about the photos and wanted to look for more. The store keeps old abandoned photos in a bushel basket and I dove in with gusto. As I found more and more pics, my friends joined in the hunt and I walked away with 27 more photos - including several of her wedding. It was confirmed; the man sitting with her under the Christmas tree in 1971 was her husband. They had a beautiful wedding. She smiled.

I was more enthralled than before. After studying the photos with notes on the back and a bit of internet sleuthing, the woman had a name: Barbara. Both she and her husband, Charles, are dead. She was an elementary school teacher. Their estate was sold in 2011; they had no children.

Last week I returned to the thrift store and took the time to sort through the entire basket and found over 100 more snapshots. I left behind photos of their house, her sister, her husband and their pets. I couldn't buy them all and she was the focus of my interest. From black and white photos of her as a baby to the time her husband was put into a nursing home, her life was laid out in front me, a stranger.

By now I'm invested in Barbara's history and my original plans for the photos don't seem sufficient. This begs the question...

What Should I Do with the Unsmiling Woman?

barbara-leans-car.jpgWhen I only had a couple of photos of Barbara, I was going to frame them and just put them on a shelf at home. I thought it would be fun to have her mixed in with family and friends like I'd known her.

When my stash turned into about 30 pictures, I considered decoupaging the glass top of our coffee table with them. It would make an interesting conversation piece and we could have fun with guests making up stories about her life to go with the photos. As I discovered more about the real person behind the snapshots though, that started to seem disrespectful. How can you set a glass of iced tea over top of the newlyweds' first dance? Plus, I wasn't sure that I'd be comfortable with a stranger turning my private photos into a piece of furniture.

I hit on the idea of posting the photos online - whether to Bilerico or a new blog or Facebook. I could write a short story about each photo and slowly build up an ongoing fictional narrative about "her life." Or I could use the photos in the style of those funky greeting cards that have an odd old photo on the front with a witty one-liner inside. It could be fun and frivolous. Now that I have an entire life's most important moments sitting in front of me, frivolous also seems disrespectful.

She had a fascinating life that has really resonated with me. I put the photos in order from 1939 to 1996; when confronted with the entirety of her recorded history, watching her age in the space of time it takes to flip through them all is surprisingly emotional. Knowing that her husband was put in a nursing home for Alzheimer's and watching him deteriorate in the photos, it's heartbreaking when he disappears. He was the main photographer in the family. Once he leaves, there's only one more photo of Barbara. Her grief is beautifully understated and would reduce the most hardhearted person to tears.

I'm currently doing more research to try to find out more about her. I've contacted the elementary school where she taught in the late 70s to see if anyone there remembered her. I've searched Facebook for any relatives. I know where she went on vacation, where she was married, when and where she and her husband died, and even the location of their house in Silver Spring, Maryland.

This leads me back to my original question. What should I do with the photos of the Unsmiling Woman? Continue to research her and try to write a biography of a quiet life with the information I can glean? Should I do more digging and then use that info to weave a fictionalized account of her life? What about ignoring the reality of her life and giving her a completely fictionalized yet incredibly dramatic life that movie stars and millionaires would envy? Start a separate blog for the project, post them on Bilerico Project, or write a book if possible? The possibilities are endless.

I've included in this post the three photos I've shared on Facebook over the past few weeks. Two of them are iPhone pictures taken of the original photos as they were found in the thrift store. The last one, the wedding photo, is scanned. As you look at them, imagine how you would paint a picture of Barbara, the Unsmiling Woman, and then leave me some suggestions in the comments section. I'll be interested to see what you guys come up with.


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