On weekends when I was growing up in Oklahoma, my mom and I often would scan the newspaper listings of estate sales, and pick a few to explore. To my memory, we rarely bought anything, but I was captivated by these whole lives suddenly exposed to be dug through by scavenging hands, while family members or strangers set a dollar amount for stacks of well-worn records and boxes of vacation travel slides. More than any funeral I’d attended, these estate sales had a heavy sense of mortality, with a life reduced to its meager price tags.
What Is Left Behind: Stories From Estate Sales by Norm Diamond, out May 16 from Daylight Books, is a photographic excavation of this world. As Diamond affirms in his introduction, “There is nothing like an estate sale to remind me of my own mortality and life’s brevity.” For a year, he would visit up to ten estate sales a week in Dallas, Texas, photographing the haunting, strange, and sometimes comical moments of these incredibly personal sales. On May 20, the Afterimage Gallery in Dallas will open an exhibition featuring this series.
Diamond’s ability to find an image amid the heaps of possessions came from his 35 years working as an interventional radiologist. He explains:
During my career, I sifted through hundreds of computer images every day, glossing over each patient’s normal anatomy subconsciously until an abnormal finding set off a conscious alarm. As an example, it might have been a minute trace of dye, seen on only one or two images, that escaped the confines of a small artery and revealed the site of a patient’s hemorrhage. When I went through the rooms in a house during a sale, I also made hundreds of yes/no decisions every minute without thinking. Almost always the answer was “no.” And then something would catch my eye — a poignant memento, a cultural knickknack that illustrated a time in our nation’s history, or an item so intimate and evocative that I knew I must photograph it.
He bought some items (nothing over $25) and brought them back to his studio. Yet the in situ photographs are especially engaging. A man’s portrait rests by a made bed, the serene domestic moment interrupted by a tiny price tag for $2.50, a sale that would likely be for the frame rather than this family photo. A toilet paper holder in another image is priced at $5 for anyone who wants to rip it from the wall, while a body brace marked $15 is a shadow of the absent owner’s decline. In the back of the book, Diamond has some notes on individual items, such as the rifle resting on a Bible (“This being Dallas, Texas, I had several gun images to choose from after a year of estate sale browsing”), and another for a box of butter cream caramels, which had a wig inside. “After I purchased it, I took the box home and removed the hairpiece, which sprang out, expanding wildly in every direction,” he writes.
Most of the objects Diamond focuses on in the nearly 70 photographs published in What Is Left Behind are not worth much, whether a 1939 science project collection of pressed leaves, or a cast of someone’s teeth from 1973. Instead, they are a tactile timeline of a life lived. “This is contemporary Dallas, but it is also Dallas in 1950, 1972, 1986 — each home a time capsule,” writes Kat Kiernan, editor of Don’t Take Pictures, in an essay for the book. “Through Diamond’s photographs, we see how the world has changed over the course of a lifetime, culturally and technologically.”