It was a loose tradition in our house when I was growing up that a rainy weekend afternoon meant my father would drag out the slide projector and we’d spend hours gazing at old photos.
Reel after reel of slides, mostly of family outings, an alarming amount of shots of my brothers and me perched on canons and a comforting number of my mother laughing. And there was one picture, one my father refused to discard, of a group of people we didn’t know – probably included by mistake from the photo lab – sitting in a door jam munching on sandwiches. This would set off an explosion of laughter as if we didn’t know the picture was there from the last 75 times we’d seen it.
My father never ditched any shot that came back from the photo processing store, resulting in an oddball gallery of humiliation that was the litmus test for every potential mate my brothers and I brought home. If, after sitting through an entire slide reel of every step of my “I’m a Little Eskimo” dance routine from 1962, the guy was still sitting in the room – awake – he might be asked to stay for dinner.
When I think of it, though, this must have been even more boring for my parents since most of the photos weren’t, to them, all that old. Oh, at the age of 12, photos of me at six seemed ancient. Now I know six years to an adult is like last week. I recall my mother’s constant comment throughout the presentation was, “I still wear that dress.” It’s only now I get the sarcasm.
I guess this is why I’ve grown up with this fascination of all old photos, even ones of people I don’t know, preferably the ones that didn’t turn out as well as planned. I could lose hours surfing the site Square America and its non-judgmental homage to photos no one else cared to keep, the ones not displayed in the family album, but secreted somewhere else in the house: a junk drawer, a cardboard box in the closet, a manila envelope in a bottom desk drawer.
Back in the day before digital photography made images cheap and plentiful, discarding a photo, no matter how hideous, was akin to throwing out a piece of your soul. These days we just delete them thoughtlessly from the camera, the eyes that close, the baby that goes into a meltdown, the puppy in motion. Yet these are the images that tell more about the subject matter than the carefully composed pictures chosen for public view.
Even more transparent are the photos that have been defaced in someway; torn in half or scribbled on, yet not discarded completely. Such violence and anger kept alive when the simple act of tossing the paper in the trash would have eliminated the memory completely and irrevocably.
The thing is, you can watch hours of “period pieces” on the movie screen and all you will see is a sanitized, prettified pantomime of contemporary people pretending. But old photos refuse to be romanticized. Hollywood can edit out the era when the only women’s eyeglasses available were hideous rhinestone-studded pastel masks that made anyone, even the most stunning women, look like Dame Edna. But the photographic evidence is in the bottom drawer of any woman diagnosed as nearsighted before 1966. And if, for instance, such a photo should, at any time, see the light of day and get passed around, gawked at and become the subject of ridicule, I know of two teenage boys who can start begging on street corners for gas money. Just for instance.
There is not a lot of movement in old photos. With a digital camera I could fire off 25 shots of Heir 2 hitting the cross country finish line. But before digital, 25 shots was all you got for the entire weekend and it was risky to try and capture movement. Better to stand everyone up around a central object, the choice of which, out of context, can sometimes be quite puzzling, and make everyone smile on command – well, sort of. Not many genuine smiles in old photos. A lot of self-conscious grimaces, but very few smiles.
When I see other people’s discards, I wonder what someone else would make of our old stash of unmounted photos. My brothers and I, during some huge family gathering, took a series of random shots of people just talking and socializing. In every shot, though, we hid a giant crab claw, either hanging from a lamp, on top of one of The Uncles’ heads or sticking out of a pie – a normal family gathering and no one responding to this giant crab claw. To my parents, this was a phenomenal waste of money and the photos were never mounted.
They resurfaced when I was going through my father’s work papers after his death. They were in an envelope in the top pocket of his old brief case along with some of his business cards. He had scolded us for wasting film – but he never threw them away.