Thumbing through old photographs can be a reliable way of evoking nostalgia. And these black-and-white Independence Day photographs, pulled from The New York Times’s archive, offer a potent dose.
We see holiday crowds, marches, amusement parks, parades. We see friends and families at the beach and in their backyards. We see communal joy. We see the Twin Towers, whose lofty height competes with that of the sky-high fireworks. We see a pre-9/11 world where low-level flybys near Manhattan don’t trigger citywide anxiety.
But today, in the grip of a pandemic, there’s another dimension to the nostalgia that’s evoked while viewing these photographs.
It’s evident in the casual human contact, the close quarters, the lack of social distance.
You’ll find it in the appearances of hands held against bare faces, the unconscious proximity of strangers, the joy of visible smiles. You’ll find it in the apparent freedom of movement. You’ll find it in the relaxed posture of people who aren’t accustomed to — or interested in — keeping their distance.
Patriotism and nostalgia are inextricably linked. Perhaps that’s what makes these photographs so compelling: the juxtaposition of archival expressions of American pride with our contemporary reality — when, from a global perspective, the concept of American exceptionalism is being challenged on multiple fronts.
In the face of great loss, our celebrations persist. Some Americans have even begun to travel again.
But in a year when Easter, Eid and Memorial Day have largely been celebrated without communal gatherings, Independence Day will be another holiday that many of us spend away from our families and friends — another shared tradition deferred to the future, and relegated, for now, to the past.