Past Recovery, 1979
Esther Parada, American, 1938–2005
Gelatin silver prints with toning
Overall: 96 × 144 in. (243.8 × 365.8 cm)
The Target Collection of American Photography, museum purchase funded by Target Stores
Habits of Mind
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Draw conclusions to describe the attributes of the people depicted.
• Write dialogues for the subjects of the paintings using correct punctuation and grammar
Connecting to the Work of Art
In Past Recovery, Esther Parada creates a history of her family in one work of one hundred images. The title and pictures invoke the artist’s past that is beyond recovery except through images and memory. She transforms the photograph of her great aunt’s and uncle’s wedding anniversary in 1920 into a composite family scrapbook by enlarging it and superimposing earlier photographic images of family members upon their pictures at the banquet. Parada wrote:
My sister’s face at age two [top center] is juxtaposed with her own image thirty years later and with that of a great aunt whom we never met, although family legend had it that they are cast in the same mold. Similarly, I see other members of that family gathering through the filter of my own cumulative experience.¹
The one hundred photographs that comprise this piece fill an entire wall. The individually framed photographs create a life-sized image, seen as if through window panes. The monumental, ambitious scale of this work reveals new ways in which photographers are approaching their medium. The diagonal table creates an axis around which the figures are grouped. The contrast of black and white and sepia, or brown, tones, like the overlapping and superimposing of images, creates a complex composition that evokes the passage of time and the jumbled nature of memory.
Esther Parada was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1938. She received a B.A. with honors in art, art history, and literature from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and an M.F.A. from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia in the early 1960s, she taught art and photography. She has worked as a graphic designer and, since 1975, has been associate professor of photography at the University of Illinois School of Art and Design in Chicago. Her work has been exhibited extensively and she has published articles for newspapers and magazines.
Target III: In Sequence (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1982), p. 9.
Look carefully at the entire image. Where do your eyes go to first?
Does this seem like one image, or are there different parts? What makes you think that?
Look at the color scheme. Do you see a difference in color in the white tones? Distinguish between warmer and cooler shades.
What medium do you think this work is? Why?
What can you say about the composition? How do the diagonal lines in which the people are placed seem to correspond to the grid-like composition?
What is the effect of the artist filling the image almost entirely with people?
Discuss the people portrayed in the work of art. What do they seem to be doing? Are they involved in a concerted effort or are the images separate events?
The artist has transformed a photograph of her great aunt’s and uncle’s wedding anniversary in 1920 into a composite family scrapbook by enlarging it and superimposing earlier photographic images of family members upon their pictures at the banquet. Can you distinguish which parts are the original photograph and which are the overlaid images? How?
The work is titled Past Recovery, and refers to the history of the artist’s family created in one work composed of one hundred images. What does the title suggest about the success of her effort? And the photograph itself?
The one hundred photographs that comprise this piece fill an entire wall. The diagonal table creates an axis around which the figures are grouped. The contrast of black and white and sepia, or brown tones, as well as the overlapping and superimposing of images, creates a complex composition that evokes the passage of time and the jumbled nature of memory. What tools do we use to try and remember the past? Do you think we can ever recover the past completely?
In this work, her own memory offers the artist help in recovering her past. Is this an objective or a subjective past? Is memory always subjective? Or are there collective memories?
The images are a tool for the artist to remember her past. “My sister’s face at age two [top center] is juxtaposed with her own image thirty years later and with that of a great aunt whom we never met, although family legend had it that they are cast in the same mold. Similarly, I see other members of that family gathering through the filter of my own cumulative experience. Are images always subjective? Can an image represent an objective, neutral truth?
What does the juxtaposition of images add to this work, above a mere remembrance of individual people? Can “past recovery” ever succeed? What does this work tell us about memory, individual or collective, and the passing of time? Do you agree with its message?
Discuss the people portrayed in the work of art.What might they have been thinking?Why?
If the subjects in the works of art could talk, what might they say to each other? What might they say to you?
How do photographers give information about the personalities of their subjects?
Divide the class into groups. Discuss the portraits and have students determine as much information as they can about the individual characters.
Using these visual clues, complete a character analysis.
Have each group develop dialogues and dramatic presentations to share with the class. Class guesses which presentation represents each portrait.
Subject Matter Connection
A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “gray area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth. Similarly, various literature genres–such as fantasy or science fiction–ask readers to stretch basic beliefs. By analyzing Past Recovery, students can practice analysis where more than one answer could be accurate based on existing prior knowledge regarding this work.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.