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Richard and Anna Wagner

by Douwe Draaisma

With each click of the self-timer, the Wagners demonstrated clearly that the aging process does not follow the even rhythm of the calendar

Our memory does not really handle the daily round well. It is hard put to reconstruct unremarkable happenings, or the way voices used to feel, how rooms smelled, the way food tasted. Or what your loved ones used to look like. Your parents in former days, your children when they were younger, your wife, husband, friends — by remaining close to you and changing imperceptibly and slowly, they have managed to expunge their past appearance from your memory. Even the transformation of your own looks eludes you:  the face you see in the mirror today blurs the face you wore yesterday, let alone a month or a year ago.

If our appearance were a book, and if our memory were a bibliophile, then our memory would place each new edition next to the carefully preserved previous editions. We would be able to look at an early edition at our discretion and compare it with a later one and so tell what had been removed, added, scrapped, revised or corrected. Instead our memory is a tool designed for evolutionarily useful purposes, and that does not involve the collection of old editions. After all, if we cannot see our children as they used to look ten or 20 years ago, then there is no point in recalling their former appearance — so away with it!

We must forgive our memory for yet another reason. It finds it easier to determine what has changed than to tell what has stayed the same. The people we have around us every day change as quickly or slowly as everyone else, but thanks to our daily contacts with them their changes are played out on a scale that makes them seem to stand still. It is unfair to blame our memory for throwing away editions when, on the face of it, the latest imprint differs in no way from the preceding one.

The confrontation with what you used to look like is provoked in our time — and in our part of the world — by photographs rather than by recollections.

Photography has altered our relationship to our memories of past appearances. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, the problem of trying to remember somebody and being unable to tell whether you recall his face or his photograph did not exist. This uncertainty follows on from the certainty a photograph proffers, the knowledge that once, then, on that particular occasion, he had looked like that:  that glance, that hairstyle, those features. These days we have something like a photographic biography of nearly everyone, from their birth to the present day or their death — a visual record that may not document every phase of life with equal intensity, but nevertheless comprises the entire life and records the changes that pass too slowly for our memory to notice.

From the first year of their marriage in 1900, the Berlin couple Anna and Richard Wagner too photographs of themselves on Christmas Eve and sent the photographs to their friends as Christmas cards. The series continued until 1942, three years before Anna's death. Only a few years are missing. A female friend of the Wagners kept all the photographs. Almost a half a century later they were discovered in an attic in the former East Berlin and were published. At a cursory glance, all the photographs are of the same thing. The couple themselves, a table with a display of Christmas presents, a Christmas tree, an interior that changes little. Each of the photographs has been taken on the same day of the year. But against the unvarying background, you notice the changing seasons in a human life all the more clearly. You see how gradual the changes are, though they can also be abrupt, life the first true day of spring every year or the morning when winter seems to have arrived. By moving forward exactly one year with each click of the self-timer, the Wagners demonstrate clearly that the aging process does not follow the even rhythm of the calendar.

Richard Wagner, born in 1873, was a passionate amateur photographer by the time he married Anna, regularly buying the latest cameras, even if they cost him a month's salary or more. The Christmas photographs are stereoscopic shots. The Wagners — Anna was a year younger than her husband — were a middle-class couple. Richard had a job as a secretary for the railways, and finally worked his way up to inspector. At first they lived in Essen, but in 1911 they moved to Salzburger Strasse in Berlin, where they rented a new two-and-a-half room apartment. They stayed there for the rest of their lives. Nothing is known of their political views, although the portrait of Wilhelm II that continued to hang over the sofa long after the Kaiser had taken refuge in Doorn in the Netherlands suggests that they were of a conservative bent.

Richard did not have to serve in the German army in either of the two world wars — by 1914, he was 41 and too old for military service. The Wagners had no children.

On the first photograph, taken in 1900, Richard and Anna look younger than their actual ages of 27 and 26 respectively. Anna is playing with Mietz (Pussy), their cat, Richard is adding a festive touch to the Christmas tree; the scene almost gives the impression that were playing at father and mother. On the table, the still life of Christmas presents that was to hold so prominent a place in all the photographs is shown for the first time. Anna gave Richard the album that lay before him on the table; it could hold 200 picture postcards. Many of the belongings in their room would still be present on photographs taken dozens of years later. The tablecloth, the busts on the wall, the carpet, the chairs, the knick-knacks — the Wagners belonged to the generation in which the wedding gifts lasted throughout the marriage.

Fifteen years later the external circumstances have changed drastically. On a map of Europe, which was also shown on the 1914 photograph, the successful advance of German troops is recorded. Although many provisions now needed coupons, as did clothing, paraffin and coal, the Wagners were still able to provide a well-stocked Christmas table, with a cake, apples, sausages and drinks. With the somewhat curious sense of humor that crops up now and then in other photographs as well they have hung a small card with inscription "Famine" close to the basket of eggs and the platter of sausages.

Two years later in 1917 the deprivations of the war have hit even the Wagners' living room. The reason why they are wearing winter coats has been written underneath:  "coal shortage." The map with German troop movements has gone. No candles have been lit on the Christmas tree. Richard is wearing the slippers that were among the Christmas presents a year earlier. Grey streaks in his hair appear for the first time. The Christmas presents are dominated by a "hay box" with which food could be prepared with a minimum of fuel.

In 1927, halfway between the two world wars, the Wagners were manifestly doing well. Both of them were in their fifties by then, Richard with a middle-age spread and a cigar, but also with spectacles and graying hair, Anna behind a table on which stand elegant shoes, wine, fruit and an engraved crystal glass. In the tree, electric candles shine for the first time. But the most important item is displayed right in the front:  a "Progress" electric vacuum cleaner. It was neither the first nor the last electrical aid to appear in Anna's household; the year before she had been given an electric iron. Later she also received a massager and a hairdryer, which, according to the instructions, could be adapted with the help of various attachments to setting the hair and also as a bed warmer.

On the 1935 and 1937 photographs there are more appliances:  in 1935 and electric heater, in 1937 a Volksempfänger wireless set. The speed with which Anna seems to be aging is even more striking:  within two years she has changed from a lively woman into someone who looks older than her 63 years. Grey-haired, visibly thinner and watched by what appears to be an anxious husband, she is shown sitting behind an open sewing box.

In subsequent years the still lifes on the table grow more and more frugal. In 1940 the Wagners are again sitting by the Christmas tree in their winter coats. The last photograph of them together was taken in 1942. On the table there is a bottle with a small amount left in it; there is little food on display. For Richard there are still a few cigars. The electric candles on the Christmas tree are switched off; real candles were so scarce that women used leftover stubs in aspirin bottles as candles. On 24 June 1945, Richard took the last photograph of Anna, then 71. The war had just finished, but for her it had lasted too long; the food shortage has left visible traces on her. She weighed just 80 pounds in her clothes ("gross weight" as Richard put it with his curious sense of humor). She died on 23 August, from "serious emaciation" according to the cemetery register. Richard died a few weeks before Christmas 1950. He was 77.

Every age has its own ideas about the passage through the stages of a human life. These are expressed in symbols, metaphors, sayings and allegories. In the medieval imagination life was often considered a journey or a pilgrimage; books told what could befall a man between departure and arrival. Sometimes the journey was shown in pictures:  in a corner of a panel we see a child that in ever-older versions of itself roams over the entire painting. Another favorite was the "staircase of life," where the small child who clambers up on to the first step on the left hand side steps off again on the right as an old man. The number of steps differed, as did the stages into which a human life used to be divided:  there could be seven but also as many as ten. These stages could be linked to the division of time itself. On Titian's Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence, painted between 1560 and 1570, three faces appear under the text "From past experience the present steps circumspectly, lest it mar the future." An old man and a boy, both shown in profile, look at the past and the future, while a man in the middle of his life looks the spectator in the face. On some clocks on the facades of cathedrals or town halls the stages of life are shown passing by in the form of mechanical figures, the child in the morning, the old man in the evening. A quadripartite division might link human life with the change of the season, the birthdays of the young being counted in springs and that of the old in winters.

We know nothing about the Wagners' motive for taking their photographs every year. Perhaps it simply seemed a good idea in 1900, and continued to be so in 1901 and the years that followed. Nor do we know how they themselves viewed the photographs once the series had started. Did the perhaps place the photographs into the stereoscopic viewer now and then and observe their own aging process, the minor changes in their room, the almost annual reappearance of new gloves? It seems unlikely that they ever planned to create a photographic memory of their own lives when they started in 1900. It is a memory that preserves all the previous editions and records of the deceptively slow changes that no one notices himself and in others. For the modern spectator who can page through the whole series and in perhaps an hour watch 45 years pass by in review, this photographic memory has become an unintended work of art. It reveals something of what past generations expressed by pilgrimages, stages of life and seasons, all the more tellingly because the photographs do not portray a medieval Everyman, but people just like ourselves.

Excerpted from Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older by Douwe Draaisma. Copyright © 2004 by Douwe Draaisma. Reprinted by arrangement with Cambridge University Press.

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Articles in this Issue

The Things We Make, by Mary Phillips-Sandy
The Sting and the Honey, by Edmund Eugene Mullins
Richard and Anna Wagner, by Douwe Draaisma
323 Prospect Place, by Josh Jackson
Letting Go: Highschool, by Jeff Steinbrink
Geography, by George Konrád
Literature, by Todd Zuniga
Risk Management, by Peter Joseph
March 2007


Douwe Draaisma is Professor of History of Psychology at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands. He is the author of Metaphors of Memory.

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