I just ordered a new iPhone. My present one is cracked, outdated and full of images. When I scroll back from most recent to the very first image I took almost 8 years ago, (from 2 generations of iPhones), I can see my history flip back to a younger time with kids at home, different pets and less gray hair.
I have thousands of digital images (vacations, family events, random candids and artistic endeavors). They are on this broken phone, in the cloud, on hard drives and on backup hard drives. Some were printed and hang on the walls at home. They have become iconic in my mind. I pass them every day.
Is bigger really better?
My new phone will be able to hold more images. Why not? Technology now allows me much more storage. I can snap photographs with unbridled freedom. Thousands of images, all over the place, many to be looked at once or twice or added as attachments to emails. It’s my distinctive image bank.
I have made it my business to purge images that have lost meaning. I eliminate duplicates (slightly different angle or cropped in). This edited cascading timeline is all in my pocket and about to increase.
Other peoples photos
Recently, I inherited 2 boxes of old photographs and slides from my Uncle who passed away. I put off opening the boxes for a year. I have a challenge organizing my own images. The thought of getting into another’s collection was unsettling.
After opening the box and pulling out stacks of various sized black & white photos, I began looking at them one by one, with a magnifying glass. Unexpectedly, I found myself transported. My limited view of the world expanded. I think most of the people in the photos were relatives of mine, but I wouldn’t know it. Many were no longer with us. The images were of celebrations, people next to their cars, weddings, in bars, laughing, flirting and posing. These are the same things we capture today. The difference is that it is so easy now. We can capture 4K video and record tens of thousands of moments from a photographic tool the size of a cracker.
Applaud the effort
I think of the days using film, when cameras were cumbersome and the user had to wind the film on a spool to load into the camera. The “photographer”, (usually my grandma or an uncle) would, after deciding THIS was the moment, pull out the Kodak! The effort was notable compared to now: Load the film in dim light, take the photo with the sun in the correct position, use up the 12 or 36 frames, drop the exposed film off at the drugstore and then wait 3 days. Pick up the photos. This was simply the accepted process.
It would seem, with that amount of effort (and delayed gratification), a certain amount of deliberation preceded the snapping of the shutter? Maybe, and that is what I contemplate when I look at these inherited photographs. What was it about THIS moment, or event that brought out the camera? Posed wedding groups don’t count. (that was a formality). It is the candids that I appreciate.
I look at this snapshot and am struck by the humorous contrast. A dozing relative on the right and 2 people having the time of their life a few feet in front. I forget the fact that there had to be a photographer. This image is a good example of “fly on the wall” family photojournalism!
The long view
This photograph is endearing. The boy happily looking at the camera holding a shovel is “helping” the older man with the construction of a fieldstone patio. The boy looks proud to be there. And, I might bet, if that house is still standing, hints of that patio would still be there. I see construction photographs of iconic structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Hover Dam. Without drawing comparisons of this humble construction project to the building of the Golden gate Bridge, I will say that the humanity shines though in this sunlit tiny backyard area of what looks like a Milwaukee bungalow and a boy and his kinsman.
For me, this image, is devoid of the thought that someone even had a camera to take the photo. The little girl playing at the edge of the water with the older woman peacefully floating in the foreground. There is a spiritual, almost religious mood to this scene. I keep in mind that life was more difficult back then and simple joys may have been regarded differently than today.
Four people are in this photograph: the adult behind the wheel (checking for traffic in his rear view mirror?), the little girl grasping the edge of the partially rolled down back window and the two boys- one reassuring the other as they look toward the camera. I see caution in the driver, curiosity in the little girl and love and reassurance in the two boys. They all know they are being photographed but each person is reacting differently. I look at this scene and realize that they all must have been excited about having their picture taken that day.
This might be the most unusual photograph I inherited. A handsome man on a horse and an admiring elderly nun. It looks like a movie still. It is not. I may never know who the people are or where and why this was taken. I can only imagine the relationship, who took the photograph and it’s location.
The short and long of it
Digital Images held on my phone, photographs stacked in boxes and placed in albums are my history. They tell a story of growth from before memory to the innocence of childhood moving beyond the recklessness of teenage years into fatherhood. The ticking of time is more apparent to me now and when I see these inherited old black and white images of relatives I can’t even identify, I see that I have done and celebrated life in much the same way.
One day, I will simply be an image that someone will not be able to identify. These old photographs offer me a wider view of existence. I see, in black & white, that people laughed, cried, celebrated, loved, fought and lived this life too. Those moments thought worthy of recording, were thankfully captured.
For me, the importance of these photographs, even if I don’t know who is in them, is that the circle of life goes on and I have a part.