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musing on the power of a photograph

WHEN I CAME UPON THIS IMAGE BY CHANCE the other day in the Library of Congress online photo archives, it stopped me still. Who is that boy, and what is he planting?  (And will you forgive a total digression from our usual topics of discussion, since I am about to stray?)

The power of photography has been making itself known to me in multiple ways this last week, actually. I watched the astonishing British television movie “Shooting the Past,” a Stephen Poliakoff masterpiece from 1999. It’s the story of a massive, eccentrically managed photo archive threatened with closure—and the potential destruction of many of its images—when an American company buys the rambling mansion it’s housed in.

(The clip continues for another couple of minutes at this link.)

It was another photo-driven plot that led me to “Shooting the Past.” Over Thanksgiving, I watched Poliakoff’s 2001 “Almost Strangers” (called “Perfect Strangers” in its original British release). Its story centers on a family reunion, and not millions of photos but really just two: one of a young boy dressed as a dandy of a period Italian prince, the other of the boy’s grandfather striking an uncharacteristically comical dance pose in the garden.

I recommend you watch them both—and so does my dear friend the doodler Andre Jordan, who I have since learned is a big Stephen Poliakoff fan.

SO WHO IS THE BOY in the photo up top, and the little slideshow below? He is Quentin Roosevelt, youngest and supposedly favorite son of President Theodore Roosevelt, planting a tree at Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

It was taken circa 1904 by Edward S. Curtis.

Quentin was just 3 when his father became president, so he grew up in the White House. As a sophomore at Harvard—and a promising writer, apparently—he left college to join the Air Force. Despite the promise in that photo, Quentin did not live to see the tree reach maturity: He died over France during a combat flight on July 14, 1918.

More Hopeful Moments

CLICK ON THE FIRST thumbnail to begin the show, then toggle from slide to slide using the arrows beside the captions. Enjoy.

(Edward S. Curtis photos of Quentin Roosevelt from the Library of Congress)

CategoriesBook inspiration
  1. Ilona says:

    Fine digressions. There is a moral somewhere in Quentin’s story, I suppose. To be content and live life to the fullest while we may… or how our gardens ( or parts thereof) may live long past us… I’m not at all sure which digression I would take with it, but enjoyed the pictures. There is something of these photos that makes us believe it was simpler somehow.

    1. Margaret says:

      Ilona, I couldn’t agree more — as poignant as they proved to be once I knew the story of his short life, they still seemed simpler. And both the images and the movies I mentioned were definitely reminders for me about carpe diem, yes.

  2. Anne Mallampalli says:

    First time I’ve taken 4 deep breaths all day and sat for more than one recollected minute. Thank you for this. Anne M.

  3. Charity says:

    It seems like there is an honesty about these pictures. Something that just encourages you to stop and take notice.
    The fact that he lived a short life, tugs at a mother’s heartstrings.
    But I’m glad you shared.

    1. Margaret says:

      You are all just so wonderful to understand — to affirm — why these photos (and the videos) got to me this week, and how much (like Anne says so well) I needed to take 4 deep breaths and sit for more than one recollected minute. I so value the community that began on A Way to Garden and is now also coming together on “the book blog,” as I think of it. Thank you.

  4. Yvonne says:

    I’ve put in my request for Shooting the Past to the library. I love all the BBC productions. Thanks for putting this in mind for us.

  5. Estyn says:

    He looks like a thoughtful, solitary child.

    I’m struck by the narrative that pictures suggest. Even when scrolling through my own photo files I find that the story looks smooth and cohesive, not at all like the bumpy ride of days I experienced.

  6. I am reading the first volume of E. Morris’ masterful biography of Theodore Roosevelt. When I saw that photo, I just said to myself, it will be one of TR’s children. When he built Sagamore Hill there were no trees around the house. Lovely image; thanks for the link. And that is also a great story about the photo archives. I’ve seen it a couple of times.

  7. Paula says:

    Digressions & winter. Perhaps it’s God’s way of showing the bounties of His world & His connection to our soul.
    Thanks for posting the pics & video! A week ago, I was on a business trip to Germany & Italy & wondered about individuals, like Lilly & her family in the video, decades & centuries before for me. Hilly, narrow cobble stone roads, churches, city squares/circles, art, fountains, castles, vineyards, & Greek & Roman ruins dating back to BC, all places where families & communities gathered. It’s amazing how man has progressed, yet we still express the same core needs & connections throughout the generations!
    Hope you enjoy hot chocolate w/marshmallows & candy canes or whatever with loved ones this holiday season!
    P.S. About once a year I have the opportunity to sail with my family past Sagamore (& Jilly Boel’s). I’ll be thinking about Quentin’s connection. thanks!

  8. Lori says:

    I came across your new book as a recommendation on Amazon. I always liked your appearances on Martha’s show and bought your first gardening book. I found it so thoughtful. I’m not at all surprised you left the fast lane for the dirt road.
    After losing a brother this summer tragically, I found planting bulbs this fall for him (he was always planting something at our family farm) — a first step in the healing process.
    I have had to leave a busy suburban life and return to the rural Indiana county I where I grew up to help take care of a disabled brother (a responsibility my late brother had assumed).
    So, I’m anxious to read your new book. Peace, solitude, and a deeper appreciation that we are wise when we “number our days” have been the unexpected fruits of this deep sorrow.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lori, and thank you for reconnecting and sharing your story. I am sorry for the loss and other challenges that led to your change of venue, but glad to hear of the silver lining. Hope to “see” you again soon.

  9. Dear Margaret,
    I just got to see these photos- as a gardener AND a photographer I appreciate them- who ever knew Edward Curtis would have made these photos? Thanks so much for sharing them!

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