The process of exchanging memories and stories through photographs is a ritual that many of us are familiar with. Whether we find ourselves leafing through a box of old photos tucked away for safekeeping, flipping through an album of faces lost but not forgotten, or sifting through orphaned snapshots at a flea market, our engagement inflates flat images with renewed movement, colour and energy. For photographer Catherine Panebianco, the Christmas holidays are particularly associated with the act of storytelling through photographs. Her mind holds years worth of memories of her father hauling out his collection of photographic slides, projecting them for the family to see and enjoy, clicking through the illuminated images while he and Panebianco’s mother tell stories reignited by each glowing memory.
It’s a family tradition that felt so natural, warm and organic that Panebianco didn’t think much of the ritual until 2016. While working on one of her photographic projects, her mother happened to be looking through the family slides nearby. “My mom had the slides out, and I loved the one of her in a boat on a lake in Canada. I thought I might be able to place that slide against the lake I currently live by, Chautauqua Lake,” Panebianco explains. “I really thought it would just be an image of the slide lined up with the water, but as I held it there, I realized that the backgrounds melded together. It was a memory of the past combined with today’s present. A lightbulb went on, and that’s how the project started.”
Four years later, that project, titled No Memory is Ever Alone, is finally complete, and the reason its creation was such a long journey is because of the thought process behind each pairing of a slide of the past to a setting in the present. For Panebianco, the most difficult part of the work was finding the best backgrounds for each reinterpretation—the current landscape had to possess some meaning for her personally, but it also had to possess the perfect lighting for illuminating her selected slides.
“I didn’t want to Photoshop my hand and the slide in,” she reflects. “I wanted that feeling of connection between the past and present.” A bright, country dining room acts as the perfect backlight for a faded, magenta-toned slide of a dinner party; a luminous white snowfall brightens an Ektachrome slide of a similar blanketed setting; and the stairs of a house act as the perfect contextual backdrop of an old Kodachrome transparency of a bristly dog.
On a personal level, the project helped Panebiacno better understand her parents’ relationship, which is the main narrative throughout the slides. Most of the images were made in the 1950s and 1960s, before Panebianco was born, so her own recollection and interpretation of the stories were absorbed through her parents’ retelling. When Panebianco started the project, her mother was still alive, and was very taken by her daughter’s reinterpretations.
“She really loved what I was doing. She gave me the first slide of herself and loved the final image. She passed away about a year and a half ago, so she only saw part of the project,” Panebianco explains. “But through making this work, and seeing that so many of the slides made by my dad were of my mom, was really touching. They were together for 60 years, and this project really makes me feel like she is still here—her spirit is in these images, still in my life. These spirits of our past still surround us in our present life.”
Last Christmas, the first after her mother’s passing, Panebianco’s family couldn’t muster the emotional strength to continue the tradition of going through the slides without the voice of their matriarch. But Panebianco hopes her project will act as a new chapter for their engagement. “Recently, my dad and I have been bringing out the slides to reminisce on our own, and I’m interviewing him about each image. I hope to exhibit his words with the images. The project really has brought my dad and I closer together, and he’s thrilled that his slides are getting so much attention!”
Extending the ability for us to connect with each other through photography is why Panebianco thinks so many people have shown interest in her images, especially at a time when many families are forced to spend time apart. “I think that because of the pandemic, family has become so much more important to people,” she reflects. “We all have photos or old slides within our families, and figuring out a way to activate them in traditions is important. I hope that people feel comforted by the fact that the spirits of their loved ones surround them today as we go about our own lives. They are part of your landscape.”
Editor’s note: No Memory is Ever Alone was a winner in the LensCulture Critics’ Choice Awards 2020. To discover more inspiring projects, check out the rest of the winners!