Some of the photographs in my family files are grotesque and frightening, others are mundane, and a few are unintentionally funny. This photograph is easily the most enigmatic. Why is there a suitcase in the middle of the Great Plains?
I don’t know who took the photo. On the back, in pencil, someone – there’s no name – wrote: “I think this is the school building in Callaway.” That would be Callaway, Nebraska, where cousins of cousins settled a hundred fifty years ago. Maybe it is Callaway. It looks – again, maybe – like photos of a school in Callaway. But then, it looks like a lot of 19th century public institutions throughout central and western Nebraska: sepia brick and tall narrow windows. It would take a trip to a county historical society to nail the identification. Callaway? It’s plausible. Probable, even.
The schoolhouse is not what catches my attention. It’s that suitcase, resting amid the forbs in the foreground. Simple explanation: the photographer set up the tripod and forgot that it was sitting there.
I do not find the simple explanation particularly satisfying. 19th century photography was not cheap: it was important to make each photographic plate count. Mistakes get made, but it isn’t possible to just forget the fact that there’s a suitcase in the middle of your frame.
That leaves a couple of other possibilities. First, that the photographer wanted that suitcase there. The photo’s purpose wasn’t to document the school building, but was instead a mordant comment whose punchline has long since been forgotten. Or, maybe, the suitcase was there before the shot was set up and simply left undisturbed, as if it were part of the landscape.
Every likely explanation pushes back against that penciled description on the photo’s cardboard backing. No: this isn’t a schoolhouse in Callaway. It’s a suitcase in the middle of Nebraska. And, after fifteen decades, that suitcase remains unopened, waiting for its owner to realize it’s lost.