All That’s Left

How many emotions are tangled amongst the threads in an old sewing box? What memories are conjured by the sight of a family album or a childhood toy? Attempting to represent intangible feelings, people imbue their possessions with significance—belongings serve as reminders of a particular event or person or place. What Is Left Behind is both a statement and a question; as a statement, the title refers to the objects that Norm Diamond photographed at estate sales throughout Dallas. If viewed as a question, it points towards an investigation of the legacy that remains after a death.

Diamond brought his camera into the homes of people he would never meet to document the items they had once owned. From his photographs of household objects and personal effects, we gather clues about their owners, but any conclusions would be a fiction of our own making. We do not know which photographs belong to which estate sales, so we cannot presume to know the identities of these individuals. Instead, they blur into an amalgam of lives lived.

Viewing Diamond’s photographs is like stepping into one of these estate sales. Through his dark color palette and somber use of natural lighting, we feel the emotional weight of combing through the possessions of someone who has passed away. As images, there is a safe distance between the viewer and environment: we can look without feeling like intruders, taking time to speculate on the lives and fates of the homes’ previous owners.

Diamond walks a careful line between poignant and overwrought, interspersing humorous images. In one photograph, a toilet paper holder is still attached to the bathroom wall that bears the scrawled sales pitch, “toilet paper holder $5.00.” In another, stacks of Playboy magazines surround the hearth of the home, neatly sorted by decade. These pictures provide much-needed lightness in an otherwise heavy series.

This is contemporary Dallas, but it is also Dallas in 1950, 1972, 1986—each home a time capsule. Through Diamond’s photographs, we see how the world has changed over the course of a lifetime, culturally and technologically. In No Reception, an old television sits on an otherwise empty floor, its screen showing static. The device still works but is unable to receive modern-day signals, rendering it essentially useless. We can speculate on the reasons that this technological relic was kept long past its ability to be useful, but Diamond uses it as a metaphor for the inexorable march of time.

Rarely are we given context for these items. A few signs explaining the dos and don’ts of estate sale shopping provide the setting; beyond that, only bits of carpet and wallpaper make their way into the frame. Occasionally Diamond pulls
back just enough to glimpse a window or a doorway, but keeps the focus on the dispossessed belongings rather than the process of their dispossession.

Price tags appear often throughout the book, bringing us back from our imaginations and reminding us that the things we see have monetary value. In Man of the House, an oval picture frame displays a portrait from several decades ago. Its intimate placement on a bedside table suggests the owner’s relationship to the man in the photograph. While we know that the $2.50 sticker is intended for the frame, Diamond’s implication is that the value is meant to reflect the man. Priced according to their function, these objects are no longer representative of their prior existence, but are instead merely items that will find themselves in new houses, stripped of their previous meaning.

Unlike his fellow estate sale–goers, Diamond sought out items that did not hold much monetary value, but that he found rich in sentiment. We don’t have any particular indication that these belongings had an emotional value to their owners. They are what they were: housewares, clothing, and toys. But they were someone’s housewares, clothing, and toys. The sentimentality is real, but it is an accretion from time and use rather than the character of the things themselves—the flotsam left over from a life departed.

The complexity of a person’s life cannot be truly understood from their possessions alone, and Diamond makes no claims to such an understanding. Instead, he gravitates to scenes of sadness, humor, banality, and absurdity to present a broader idea of what it means to be human. These unusual scenes, punctuated by price tags, signs, and awkward displays, remind us that when a life comes to an end, it does so with loose ends left untidy.

Norm Diamond

Norm Diamond’s photographs from What Is Left Behind: Stories from Estate Sales have been shown at the Houston Center for Photography, the Davis Orton Gallery in Hudson, NY, and at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Based on this series, he was named a finalist in the 2015 and 2016 Photolucida Critical Mass competitions. Pictures from his previous projects have been exhibited in juried group shows including A. Smith Gallery, TX, PhotoPlace Gallery, VT, Center for Fine Art Photography, CO, as well as several online galleries. Diamond is now a fulltime fine art photographer after a career in interventional radiology. He has studied with Debbie Fleming Caffery, Sean Kernan, Keith Carter, Arno Minkkinen, Aline Smithson and has been mentored by Cig Harvey.