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Still Memories: Musings on how family photography has changed over the years

July 24, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I had the incredible good fortune of finding photos and negatives of my family in reasonably good shape.  Over the years, I've scanned a few and now I am undertaking a project of scanning all of the good photos and negatives to preserve our family history and also to preserve my personal childhood memories.

As I was scanning a few of these for my Dad's 90 birthday party coming up this weekend, I started to reminisce about the flood of memories that these photos brought back, especially when I was a young kid.  It was a big deal back in the 50's to take the camera out at family events or when visiting my two sets of grandparents.  Each moment was special even though most of the photos compositionally wouldn't win any prizes in photo contests.


Here is one example of a photo that I scanned and then added some sepia toning to give it an "older" nostalgic look.



As I scanned and worked in PS with sepia toning, I was astonished at the flood of memories 58 years after this photo was taken.  As I viewed this photo, I could re-create the whole scene in my mind of a Sunday afternoon at my Grandparents house.  I could smell my grandfather's garden, part of it is in behind the white fence and before the old car.  I can remember the stiffness of the skirt and how the "newness" of the fabric felt against my legs.  I could feel the light summer breeze from Lake Michigan that helped to cool a hot, humid day.  I can remember my mother fussing over how the skirt look on the white bench and how she wanted me to cross my hands.  I can remember the food that we had later in the day that my Grandmothers cooked from scratch, with vegetables and salad from the garden, and a chicken freshly harvested from the old chicken coop.  I remembered that I felt safe and loved surrounded by two older generations, some talking in English and when they didn't want me to understand in their native tongue.


Besides the multi-sensory memories, I also thought about how the photographic experienced changed over the years.  My mother only brought out the camera on special occasions, like a visit to Grandmas when relatives were coming in from out of town.  The adults would talk to one another and the kids would play, usually running around the yard and burning off lots of steam.  Then a couple of cameras would come out before dinner.  We would line up as a family, or sometimes take individual shots.  There were only 12 exposures on a roll of film so each shot was carefully choreographed.  The camera wasn't used often, so there was a constant re-learning of what worked and what didn't.  And because you couldn't see the result instantly, you trusted fate that one of the shots that you took turned out.

If it was a special event, we would try to use up the roll so we could see the results as soon as possible.  Hopefully, when we re-wound the film and opened up the camera back, everything worked well and the film rolled in such a way to not expose anything.  No handy film canister yet, just darkened paper at the end of the roll and a red sticky piece that you would secure on the other side of the re-wound film to guard against light leaking.  Sometimes that worked and sometimes there were light leaks.

Then off to the drug store to place it in an envelop, with our name and address.  Hopefully, the sales person at the drug store put down a complete and accurate date on the envelop....that helped in many cases to keep track of the months and years that the photos were taken long after the fact.  It took a few days to get it developed and prints made.  Nothing instantaneous about this process.


And then we were linger over the 12 prints, savoring the moment, talking about the photo and what went on during the family gathering or event.  We re-lived the event many times and each printed photo was looked at again and again.  Each photo represented a precious and unique set of memories.

Sometimes there were other emotions when we initially went through the photos, especially big disappointment when only a few of the photos actually "turned out".  Now that I look at the old negatives, there were some rolls of film when everything turned out great and each photo was printed.  Then there were the other times, when only 2 prints were made because the negatives just didn't have enough stuff to be printed or were just plain blank.  Unfortunately, there was no way to know until the initial opening of the drug store envelop.

Today, the surviving photos are poignant memories of the event and of my youth.  They are special.  They need to be looked at, stir memories, prompt conversation, and then preserved in their original form as well creating digital archives.

Reflecting on the differences between then and now is very striking.  Here are several that resonated with me as I scanned earlier this week.

  • Photos in the 50's were rare events taken at special moments:  vacations, baptisms, big family gatherings, and Christmas.  
  • Each photo was viewed many times and looked at for longer periods of time than today
  • Each photo brings back many memories and even multi-sensory memories.
  • The sheer number of photos are exponentially different:  Looking over the number of photos of me when I was a kid, I probably take that many digital photos in an average day
  • There were many "missed" photos due to equipment or unfamiliarity with the proper handling of film and you didn't know until at least a week after the special event
  • Family events were mainly snapshots, with formal posing and few other compositional considerations

So, next week I start a more comprehensive scanning of photos of negatives so that all good photos are copied digitally and all good negatives are digitally archival.  I am looking forward to the flood of memories as I start the journey.






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