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The Personal Lives of Forgotten Trinkets

A photographer explores the emotional connections of mementos that change hands at Dallas estate sales.

"LBJ With Fishhooks" (© Norm Diamond)

This post is part of a CityLab series on wastelands, and what we squander, discard, and fritter away.

In an average week, Norm Diamond frequented as many as 10 estate sales scattered in various parts of Dallas, Texas. Perusing thousands of possessions left behind by previous homeowners, he photographed the ones that struck him. Spanning 15 months, the project started in March 2015. The result is a poignant series of images capturing the soul of wasted items—one-time cherished possessions, now left to collect dust and money from those keen to newly reclaim them as their own.

Before becoming a full-time photographer, Diamond had a career in radiology—a profession that requires a kind of investigative seeing. In his new book, What Is Left Behind: Stories From Estate Sales, he brings the skill of an observant doctor to survey discarded objects, from a toilet-paper holder and vintage Playboys to a wedding-night negligee and unrequited love letters.

Estate sales have become a common way for people to dispose of family members’ possessions after they die or move to assisted living. To get rid of the clutter, Diamond says, third-party companies come in and get rid of all the things they think won’t sell. Then they look up how much the objects left might be worth, and put on a sale.

“I came upon an estate sale by chance, and one of the first items I saw was this photo of a man on a bedside table in the room—presumably, he had been the owner of the house at one time—with a price tag of $2.50 stuck on it,” he says. “And that set something off in me—beyond the sadness and poignancy of these objects left behind, there are glimpses into lives lived and the cycle of human history.”

Man of The House (© Norm Diamond)

Soon, Diamond was Googling estate sales within 20 miles of his home in Dallas, finding dozens to choose from at any given time. He jokes that Dallas is “the center of the universe for estate sales.”

At one house, Diamond found old letters being sold for a dollar each. He stopped and read through many of them before photographing one—“it was the saddest of the lot, it touched me the most.” A letter from a spurned lover dated June 1917, the image—like many others in the series—invokes a kind of voyeuristic curiosity.

Wedding Night Negligee (© Norm Diamond)

These are deeply personal photos that tell deeply personal stories. Look at the image of wedding night negligee, delicately spun in whispers of net and lace: It’s hard not to feel the melancholy and nostalgia in some of Diamond’s photos, as viewers wonder whatever happened to the woman who once wore this to bed.

Other objects inspire a bit of laughter. A toilet paper holder for five dollars, for example, or a comprehensive Playboy collection. “The man running the sale asked $750 for the entire collection and refused to sell individual copies,” Diamond writes in the book.

Everything Must Go (© Norm Diamond)
Playboy Collection (© Norm Diamond)

Diamond’s photography chronicles the emotional debris of wasted possessions and also locates a sense of community. Photographs taken across various estate sales can be mistaken for just one. Many of the photographs evoke Dallas, but it is the Dallas of 1960, 1972, or 1986—each home frozen in time and representing a cultural time capsule. Objects include a plate featuring the face of President Lyndon Johnson with fishhooks on it, a stack of Stetson cowboy hats, and an old copy of the Dallas Morning News with the headline “Thousands Pay Homage to Martyred President,” referencing the assassination of JFK.

Thousands Pay Homage (© Norm Diamond)

“These are wasted items, but they preserve something too—I look at the picture of the newspaper and it brings back the memory and feelings of those alive at the time,” Diamond says.

All these possessions left to waste, according to Diamond, are truly just lost items ready for a new incarnation. By being recovered in these sales, they are records of people’s lives that can be preserved in new settings. He stored a yellow toy airplane from one sale under his son’s bed because the object told a story of a child somewhere and “there’s value in that.”

Soon, objects like this airplane may find a new home, he says, as gallery curators have shown interest in showcasing them. “It’s moving on to another life cycle,” he says.

Yellow Airplane (© Norm Diamond)

What Is Left Behind: Stories from Estate Sales by Norm Diamond will be published by Daylight Books on May 16, 2017.

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