old photos

We’ve had around two hundred years of people taking pictures.

For most of that time, the end product was on paper, available to be discovered and viewed by generations to come.  In some cases, by people who had no connection to those pictured.

In a recent essay, “The Strange Lure of Other People’s Photos,” former Life editor in chief Bill Shapiro recounts his fascination with “found” photos.  “These pictures, taken by average people with average cameras, are among the thousand or so that I’ve picked up at flea markets, junk shops, garage sales and, once in a while, on eBay.”  After musing about some of his favorites, he ends with, “The humbling, steadying truth that, one day, that’s all we’ll be:  a photo.”

The piece reminded me of a book, Talking Pictures by Ransom Riggs, that couples found photographs with the captions written on them.  Some examples:

“Mrs. Martha — my heaven and my hell”

“Mama & Grace, 1953, where Daddy was killed”

“1938, We got thru the depression!”

“The ones on the left and right got killed when I got hurt” (four soldiers in Vietnam)

“John in his uniform — Returned home — 1919 — A mental wreck”

“So this is heaven” (two Black men in suits and bow ties, on the steps of a modest house)

There were lighthearted photos too, but I found myself drawn to the sad or poignant ones.

We think of those folks from days gone by in black and white, because that’s how we see them in the pictures left behind, but they lived their lives in color.  There have been lots of attempts at colorization of photographs (and movies), with decidedly mixed results, which makes the beautiful work of Marina Amaral so special.

Of course, the photos that really grab us are of those we have known and of times we remember.  Often they are faded, wrinkled, or torn (just like us, I guess), sometimes having sat in a drawer or a box for years.  Or, they might have been lovingly pasted in albums and even annotated by a diligent relative.

One of my cousins has been going through pictures that her parents had kept and posting them in a family Facebook group.  A number of them are familiar, but those that haven’t been seen before are of particular interest, especially if they convey some previously unknown aspect of people you thought you knew well, or if a long-forgotten memory is triggered.

I’m especially partial to informal pictures.  Posed shots are good for documentation, but often they don’t reveal a person like an unguarded image does.  (Check out your high school and college yearbooks, which usually have some of each, and see if you agree.)  I would love to see pictures of my mom playing the piano as a young girl, of my dad learning how to hunt with his uncle Boise, and of my friends and me, laughing at whatever.

Along with the smiles, there is a sadness that accompanies looking at old photos, thinking of things undone or unsaid or unappreciated at the time, knowing that you’ll never get that chance again.  And sometimes I just find myself saying, “They’re all gone.”

We know that time marches on, as does technology.  In years past, people were reticent to take a photo, given the time and expense involved in getting a roll of film processed.  Now, we think nothing of ripping off a dozen shots of even the most mundane subject, hoping to find one that will get lots of love on social media.

So our phones and cameras (for those of us that still have them) are stuffed with electronic images.  Maybe we’ll get on a mission one of these days and organize them, but it’s unlikely.  They won’t show up in thrift stores decades down the line, and our descendants probably won’t find them either.  Or, if they do happen to crack the code of passwords and jumbled file structures, they might get started on the tens of thousands of images we’ve left behind and quickly lose interest when they see that there’s not much there.

Maybe it’s time to print some choice photos and leave them in a box somewhere for others to find.

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