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A Suitcase of Lost Photos Inspired This Artist to Retrace Her Past

This photographer unraveled secrets of the past through her grandmother's archive.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 2016

"On a cold morning in January, I asked my mom to float in our hotel pool and pretend to be Ophelia as a reference to the mental health issues experienced by women in our family tree," Macel says.
Photograph By Sara Macel

The tranquil, seaside town of Hollywood, Florida, is a series of sun-bleached scenes—sandy motels, sparkling pools, and palm-lined shores—a place that conveys a sense of time frozen.

Sara Macel’s series, “What Did the Deep Sea Say,” intersperses her own photographs with those taken by her maternal grandmother, Carolyn, which were unearthed in a forgotten suitcase long after her death. It represents her attempt to unravel the mystery of Carolyn's early life, tracing a story of escapism and, perhaps, forbidden love.

<p>"My grandmother’s suitcase of old family snapshots also contained unprinted negatives from the mid-1940’s when she lived in Hollywood, Florida. The discovery of photographic evidence from this period in her life before she became a wife and mother is what led me back to Hollywood to retrace her steps."</p>

Spring, Texas, 2015

"My grandmother’s suitcase of old family snapshots also contained unprinted negatives from the mid-1940’s when she lived in Hollywood, Florida. The discovery of photographic evidence from this period in her life before she became a wife and mother is what led me back to Hollywood to retrace her steps."

Photograph By Sara Macel

The Brooklyn-based photographer—sometimes accompanied by her own mother—made several trips to Hollywood, where her grandmother spent years as a young woman during the 1940s before returning to New Jersey to start a family.

“Hollywood, Florida, was almost like a meeting ground for the three of us, even though my grandma has been dead for more than 20 years,” Macel says.

In her photographs, she explored themes of family, solitude, escape, and memory—“the idea of the ocean as a place that can be rejuvenating, but you also can drown in it,” she says.

Along with the three women, Hollywood itself became a character in the story. The faded seaside resort town, built in the early 1920s, was envisioned and financed by Joseph W. Young, a self-made millionaire who dreamed of a “Hollywood by the Sea.” But a damaging hurricane, real estate market crash the following year, and the Great Depression that followed soon after put a dent in his dreams.

“We all have these grand aspirations of what our lives will become, and they don’t always quite live up to them,” Macel says. She saw parallels between Young’s hopes for Hollywood and her grandmother’s.

It was World War II, and the town was home to a naval training school in an old beach hotel. Macel theorized that Carolyn—who in her late 20s was on the verge of becoming an old maid by the standards of the day–went in search of a husband.

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Instead, she found a handsome young man who Macel would come to know later as Father Jim, the priest who would travel from Brooklyn to New Jersey to officiate over every family wedding, baptism, and confirmation.

Macel met him as a child when he was an old man, but in her grandmother’s pictures from Florida, he was “young and vibrant and gorgeous and shirtless.” The photographs raised questions that there was no one left to answer.

“I don’t know if there was a secret tryst, if there was a secret crush, if there was a forbidden love that never was spoken,” Macel says. In her artist’s statement, she acknowledges this universal experience: “We all have desires and memories that we keep in the quiet of our hearts.”

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