Unknown but Familiar Faces: Old Photos in Cafés & Bars

One of the things I miss most during the extended London lockdowns is sitting down at a café and people watching, writing my journal or reading. I miss both this solitary experience and the regular meet ups with my sons, partner and close friends. Sitting in cafés is an entrenched ritual that feels very much part of me. I know I am not alone in this; in fact psychotherapist Philippa Perry expresses these sentiments eloquently in her piece on coping with lockdown for The Guardian when she talks of saudade – the Portuguese term expressing nostalgic and melancholic longing – for sitting in cafés.

When it comes to people watching I am referring to street life – people passing by and fellow café goers. But on occasion I have connected to mere images of human beings in these venues, in the form of old family snaps, usually casually placed around the counter. These are people I don’t know and have never met, yet they have engaged me with a sense of humanistic camaraderie.

Sometimes it goes even deeper than that – a feeling of recognition. One such inspiration was a photograph tucked into the side of a coffee machine at Cafe Sheleg in Tel Aviv. There were numerous postcards and greeting cards in the same spot, but this faded family photograph spoke to me, and I made the assumption that this was a cherished personal memento belonging to one of the staff:

When I asked the woman making my flat white about the photo, she surprised me by saying that one day she had discovered a bag of photos by her rubbish bins outside her home and she had rescued it. This is one of the photos she particularly liked. So contrary to what I had imagined not only is she not related to anyone in the image; she has no idea of its origins.

Why did I connect to this photo? Here’s a close up:

The photo seemed very familiar, as if I could have come across it whilst rummaging in my late father’s box of old family snaps. It wouldn’t have made it into the more formal photo albums, where the photographs tended to be posed. This is a candid moment, almost like a random still from a home movie. As a child I spent many hours watching old Super 8 home movies; very often these included weddings of extended family.

In addition to the backdrop which resembles a Persian rug, two people stand out for me in this photo. They are the young woman standing next to to woman in the veil (presumably the bride), who could easily be one of my cousins, and the woman in the headscarf on the far left who appears lost in thought as she leans her face on her hand.

This woman reminds me of my late paternal grandmother (Bibi) and countless other Persian Jewish women of her generation. It is partly due to the headscarf, a modest head covering very different to the flamboyant head wraps fashionable in some orthodox communities today.

Here are a couple of photos of Bibi in a headscarf. The first dates from well before I knew her. She is probably a teenager here and this is a studio photograph. In contrast to her abundance of trinkets her head covering is a simple kerchief:

In the next image is the Bibi I remember. I took this photo, probably during the 80s. At the time I was looking at ways of subverting the typical family photograph so that it would reveal a bit more about life. So here she is in the plain headscarf, cooking Persian basmati rice in the kitchen alongside her daughter, my late Ameh:

There have been other occasions where I’ve felt compelled to photograph other photographs of random strangers in cafés and bars. Travelling in my mind to one of my favourite cities, Venice, there’s a bar called Ostaria Dai Zemei in Sestiere San Polo. Zemei is Venetian dialect for gemelli, the Italian word for twins. The owners are twins, and have decorated the bacara (a Venetian tapas/cicchetti bar) with scores of snaps of twins, many of which have been sent in by customers. I like the mix of photographs ranging from old hand-coloured shots to photo booth images. Many of the colour photos, like the previous one of my Bibi cooking rice, have discoloured over time:

In another of my favourite cities, San Francisco, I like hanging out at old-style Italian venue called Caffè Trieste. These family photographs adorn the facade but have been blown up, poster size. I think because of their size the impact is different, making it a bit more like an exhibit with a powerful nostalgic presence. Suz Lipman, a San Francisco-based photographer I have recently connected with, has also photographed this location. We had a brief exchange about its appeal and she expressed that in that spot it seems like the ancestors are watching, which I think hits the nail on head! Below, a photo from my visit in 2018:

I myself have also appeared as an anonymous face on a wall, at one of my regular Soho haunts, Bar Italia in London. In the image below, taken in 2009, I am photographing a photograph of myself reading at the café counter, which was one of a series of portraits taken of Bar Italia regulars. Over the last twelve years that picture has spent quite a lot of time on the wall and perhaps some people connected with it too. I do not know the original photographer’s name, if anyone remembers who she is please let me know:

4 thoughts on “Unknown but Familiar Faces: Old Photos in Cafés & Bars”

    • Thank you Sharonac! You’ll have to let me know if that photo in Cafe Sheleg is still there when you’re next in that part of TA

  1. Love this entry Mish. Been looking at my mum’s photos and I have similar photos of people I don’t know. I will send you a couple x


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