Book Review: What is Left Behind: Stories from Estate Sales by Norm Diamond

Man Of The House

What Is Left Behind features photographs of items at estate sales that explore themes of memory, mortality, and cultural history. Estate sales have become a common way for people to dispose of their parents’ possessions after they die or move to assisted living. Over the course of a year, Norm Diamond visited countless estate sales, photographing objects that evoke feelings of sadness, humor, and sometimes the ironic commentary on American cultural history. The resulting images are gathered in Diamond’s first monograph: What is Left Behind: Stories from Estate Sales.

Mrs. Pritchett’s Kindergarten

Diamond says the way he would decide what to photograph during these weekly excursions was not too different from his time working as a radiologist. He relates his photo expeditions to the process of looking through thousands of images of people’s bodies, until an abnormality became obvious to him. While looking over hundreds and hundreds of objects, something of importance or significance would stick out; something would catch his eye. A poignant memento, a cultural knickknack, or an item so intimate and evocative that he knew he must photograph it.

Man Of The House
Thousands Pay Homage

The little items and personal effects reminded Diamond of a key case that had belonged to his mother. After her death, he chose to keep it due to attached memories — especially the car rides only he and his mother took together. He recalled the alarming way she drove when she had first learned, how she would talk to herself in soundless conversations during these rides, and he way the case would swing and dangle from the Chevy’s ignition.

As Diamond says in his introduction, “Preserving an meaningful possession with a picture hopefully extends its life and also the memory of its owner. The photo becomes a story about this anonymous person, often embellished with tinges of sadness and poignancy — sentiments that attracted me to estate sales in the first place, and which I avoided so long in the past.”

Stetsons and Old Spice

The objects, magazines and articles Diamond came upon defy conventional expectations: a science project from 1939, a century-old letter from a rejected lover, and a complete collection of Playboy magazines. Poignant photographs of these possessions reveal clues about otherwise unknowable people. These items take on a life of their own, both in these photographs and in the idea that they will now move on to new owners.

Wedding Dress
Wedding Night Negligee
Bass Lure

Some of the objects were purchased and taken home by Diamond to be photographed with studio lights and a background. Other images are taken in-situ, with price tags affixed — seemingly in the exact spot where the previous owner had placed it. Either way, the images in What is Left Behind remind me of the countless garage sales and antique stores I visited with my parents when I was a child. While I had always been looking for something I couldn’t live without, or a highly collectible or valuable item — Norm Diamond has found treasures that remind us of our own mortality, and of our own possessions which might mean nothing to one person, but to another it may be the key to priceless memories.

In her essay, Kat Kiernan sums up What Is Left Behind beautifully: “The complexity of a person’s life cannot be truly understood from their possessions alone, and Diamond makes no claims to such an understanding. Instead, he gravitates to scenes of sadness, humor, banality and absurdity to present broader ideas of what it means to be human. These unusual scenes, punctuated by price tags, signs, and awkward displays, remind us that when a life comes to an end, it does so with loose ends left untidy.”

Norm Diamond is a fine art photographer with a previous career in interventional radiology. His work has been shown at the Houston Center for Photography, the Davis Orton Gallery, and the Griffin Museum of Photography. In 2015 he was named a finalist in the 2015 Photolucida Critical Mass competition.

What is Left Behind: Stories from Estate Sales by Norm Diamond
Hardcover, 128 pages, 10 x 10 inches
66 color photographs

To purchase a copy of the book, please visit the website for Daylight Books

To see more work by Norm Diamond, visit his website.

All photographs shown are © Norm Diamond, used by permission.

Originally published at F-Stop Magazine.