Catherine Panebianco reflects on the nature of personal memory

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Panebianco photographs her father’s old slides against her current locations: “It is a literal meeting of past and present, but there is also the idea of continuation, and the past shaping the present”

Every Christmas growing up, Catherine Panebianco’s father would bring out a box of slides and gather the whole family to view them on an old projector. “He’d set up an ancient screen in our living room, making it an event with popcorn and pyjamas, and all visiting relatives would be required to tell stories about the slides,” she recalls. Images of family vacations and boat trips, feasts and beloved pets would flicker before them as they watched, reminiscing together. “It was an important part of my family’s history and a consistent memory from a childhood where we moved a lot. This annual tradition made every new place we landed into a home.”

Now 58 years old, and based in Jamestown, New York, Panebianco has released a photobook inspired by these slides, titled Holding Time. It all started five years ago when her mother was reorganising the archive. They found a slide of her on a boat on Newboro Lake in Canada. “Generations of our family have vacationed for over 100 years,” she says. “I had the idea to take the slide down to the lake where I live now and do something with it. As I played around, holding it up, I realised the backgrounds lined up perfectly, melding my past and present.”

In each of the images in Holding Time, Panebianco repeats this action: holding up her father’s old slides against her current locations. “I generally choose the image first and then I decide what backdrop might work. Some were very easy because they were the same locations, while others took more work to find something that spoke to me,” she says.

Alongside the images, Holding Time also includes a number of small, story-like texts, written by Irene Alison. The result of many conversations, these vignettes are a combination of both women’s memories and observations about family life. “I like to call it ‘lyrical nonfiction’ with a smattering of fiction too,” the photographer explains. “I didn’t want it to be just about my family. I wanted anyone to be able to read Irene’s writing and think of their own family memories – like a more universal story, as family is a universal concept.”

We have all, at some point, looked upon a scene and been reminded of something, with a vision of the past appearing to us for a moment or two. That’s the spectral nature of memory. What Holding Time does is reflect that phenomenon through the effective visual technique of rephotographing photographs. 

“It is a literal meeting of past and present, but I also think there is something to the idea of continuation, and the past shaping the present,” Panebianco says. “I think with all the craziness in the world right now, remembering that past generations have gone through similar situations and survived it, for future generations to experience it in their own ways is a comfort.” 

Holding Time by Catherine Panebianco is published by Yoffy Press.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London