Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Our History In Photographs

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – said Ansel Adams.
That’s were Beloved took up position.

He was an excellent photographer. He had kept photograph albums of his own work from the time before we were together, a round dozen of them, which I inherited. He took many more photographs in our thirty years together, those I am keeping for now. But the early ones I filleted, sorted the pictures according to subject and, where I recognised the person, passed them on. I have only two small piles of pictures left, mostly of former colleagues, musicians all, which I am going to send to the Royal Opera House for distribution. A rather larger pile is of landscapes, cityscapes, mountains, rivers, the ancient bricks and mortar of European towns, churches, cathedrals, castles, market squares, secret passages in backwater villages, balconies overflowing with geraniums in French and Italian cobbled streets. What to do with these? I have many more in the albums I am going to keep; while I am alive they shall help to remind me of holidays we took in our time together. But what about the others? What to do with them?

I am not as good a photographer as Beloved was, I shan’t feel obliged to keep my own photos when his are so much better. But I have ancient photographs from a time before I was born, pictures of figures in formal dress, people I can no longer place, if I ever could. From my parents I inherited a boxful of loose pictures as well as three albums, the last one of which is a chaos of unrelated images which, as a child, I glued in without order, with the subjects unnamed and long forgotten. There is no one left who could help me identify them. I’d love to know who the smartly dressed lady is, elegantly  and elaborately coiffeured, in a long, flowing skirt, a white frilled high necked blouse with sleeves puffed to the elbow and from there to the wrists tightly buttoned. She is standing upright next to a chair on which, standing stiffly to attention, is a small child in a dark dress with a white pinafore, white stockings and black, shiny shoes. A boy? A girl? I vaguely remember Mum saying : this is aunt somebody, but whose aunt, hers or her mother’s?

We take hundreds of photographs which we post on social media (or not) where they will be preserved for eternity. Or at least for as long as our current form of social media exists. Since I have uploaded my pictures on to a screen I no longer stick them into albums. I had a look the other day, it says there are 6.000 of them; I sincerely hope that most of them are doubles and trebles; I surely have not taken 6.000 images? What on earth for?

Since Beloved died I have hardly taken any, fewer than I can count on the fingers of one hand: one of the German Bundesadler (Federal Eagle) in the Consulate where I applied for my new passport, one of the instructions on the inside of the Aga door how to operate the cooker, (which didn’t come out readable), a couple of spring flower beds. No more.

Some time in 2016 I treated myself to a new camera, idiot-proof the salesman said; I must have given the impression of an accomplished photographer. I still haven’t learned how to use it to its full capacity, little effort on my part leading to little progress. There must be someone who will teach me. The University of the Third Age does a photography class but I think you need to know how to handle the mechanics at the very least.

Old photographs have something so sad about them, the subjects no longer exist, they have become mere ghosts of the past, our own past, or our families' past. Gathering dust at worst, stuck in forgotten old-fashioned albums at best, they slowly fade and with them fade our memories. Here are a few lines taken from Philip Larkin’s “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”.

But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
. . . .

How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
In every sense empirically true!
. . . .

Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being you; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.


  1. I've come late to photography -- I'm now taking a course at our senior center. I, too, have some old photos, ones left behind by my parents. Oh, how I wish they had been properly labeled ... for I would dearly like to know who those people are who are peering out of the past.

  2. My parents took very few photos. And travelled light so I have no photos of my forebears. Which I regret (while hypercritically avoiding having my own photo taken).
    I suspect that U3A is used to a wide range of knowledge in their classes.

  3. Greetings, My Mother undertook to review all her albums. She died this year at 93. She disposed of anything scenic in the first edit. Then divided the photos relevant to each of her three surviving children. We each received a compact photo album. Every photo has names and approximate dates on the back. Also a selected pictorial history of any direct relations whose images are clear.
    We were so impressed with her foresight and certainly value the album we each received. A wonderful gift not only of the history but of the removal of responsibility of all the accumulation of photos.
    A good winter project for husband and me
    Regards Janine

  4. Hi Friko = I've been going through some of ours ... some I've sorted, some now will await my return - sadly I haven't filtered as many as I'd have liked to have done - but another clear out later on.

    The U3A will help I'm sure ... it will involve you bringing back memories, discussions re previous lives et al ... others will enjoy learning too and see how people lived etc ... as Tom mentions - peering into and out of the past (our parent's past) etc ... I hope it will interest and involve you.

    Sounds like the Royal Opera House will be pleased ... all the best with the new project - cheers Hilary

  5. I have started studying my ancestry, which makes me glad I kept the old pictures. Perhaps you shouldn't throw out your family snaps, they might mean something to kids or grandkids someday.

  6. I came from a line of photographer-types on both sides and remember being fascinated by my parents' darkroom. Both their families took photos as well so like you, I have boxes (and boxes and boxes) of them; some identified, some not; some places that I don't know, some familiar. Since doing my family history these have become almost essential -- at least the ones where I can trace a person or a story (and believe me, it takes work, matching up the one that MIGHT be labeled with the face on ten that aren't!). I'm scanning hundreds of them, others in files.

    Like you, I have been going through my own albums and tossing bad flower/scenery/people pictures (I do so much better now), keeping the memory ones, and sending off to friends photos that feature them. The pile is big and I'm only halfway through the books but it's a great feeling of satisfaction to see them on their way to a new home. (Let them pitch them!)

    I'm considering saving a few of the interesting photos of people/places I don't know for writing prompts and maybe putting packets of them on my Gypsy Caravan (which is now only my art) for people who are into collage and images. I hate throwing away part of someone else's life -- but what do I do with them?! Time will tell. Meanwhile, i wish you much luck!

  7. My mom wrote information on the back of every picture so I have a somewhat history of who came before me. There are no pictures of just landscapes as film and developing were too expensive to waste on inanimate objects. I am so lucky to have these. I was not so meticulous in labeling my photos and I sometimes have trouble figuring who is who in my own children’s baby photos. I thought I would remember forever. The thousands of pictures that I take today do not have the same meaning to me as those precious few that are in my albums.

  8. "you
    Contract my heart by looking out of date." What a brilliant distillation of your post's meaning today. Always heartful and thoughtful being with you <3 Thanks

  9. I have what's left of my parent's albums after being rifled through by both my siblings. I never look at them. when the house flooded after the hurricane I discovered a box of old family photos of generations past, people I couldn't identify, soaked and I tossed them without a backward glance (my sister has copies of them all anyway). we go to estate sales, my sister and I, and she is always affected by family albums that the children don't want.

  10. Hi Friko, you might look at the blog of Susan Lenz. She loves to use old photos in her art. Maybe she would like the pictures you want to get rid of.
    I did not comment in a while, sorry, but I am always reading and enjoying your posts.
    I must say, you are doing great - keep going forward...

  11. How well you describe this conundrum! My sister, whom I dub the family historian, managed to rescue a handful of old childhood slides and digitize them, so that those of us still here to remember those times can enjoy them. I have not been so enterprising, and box upon box of predigital era photos sit gathering dust (not to mention taking up space) in our closets. I can’t bring myself, as yet, to throw them out. While every now and then I entertain the thought of embarking on a photo sorting project, the inspiration passes quickly.

  12. It doesn't seem to matter how many zillion photos one has , there's never one of the second cousin's child in question .
    "You know , the one who went to ..."

  13. You have summed up what many of us are doing these days: going through old photos. I promise myself and my children that the stacks of photos, and boxes, and albums full of photos will be sorted, tossed, organized, labeled. Then, my mother gives me more. I am also going through photos on the computer. It is silly how many nonsense photos I have. I have no answers for you, but I hope you come up with some for us.

  14. YouTube is a good source for learning about photography, and so much more. There are also sites you can post photos for sale, if you need an income, there might be a market, especially if they are good photos. You could upload them to a social media sites such as flickr and inquire maybe by local (groups centered say around a German town) if anyone might know the people in your pics. With the gifted eyes and the heart of yours it is my belief you never ought to be without a camera near on hand, never. No need to know the ins and outs of cameras either, just use them to your capacity is good enough, obviously and leaves so much room to grow. Manuals are a good start to learn with too. Good to happen to come upon your account, thanks for sharing with best of wishes.

  15. From the description of the lady's clothes, I would say the picture was taken in the early years of the 20th century, maybe around 1910. There are museums and archives who collect pictures for research about various topics, such as fashion, furniture, interiors and so on. So maybe someone would love to take the ones you do not wish to keep.

  16. We had my grandmother go through photos before she died and she already didn't know many of the people in them. My mother and her sister went through the old photo boxes, too. We did our best to label them, but what will it matter and will they survive in 100 50 years? I don't know. Will all the digital photos survive? Who knows? But we take more pictures with great joy. And that makes me happy. People are optimistic, I think. :)

  17. Glad to read you’re out and about more. Perhaps, in time, once again you and your daughter will resume your relationship. Not knowing why the rift would be disturbing, but waiting for the answers is sometimes required.

    I have several photo albums of my mother’s. Many fascinating generations old photos — some people whose names I recognize, but too many others I don’t. Also, I have a large collection of color slides of spectacular scenes my husband photographed both before and after we met. I fully intended to select a few to enlarge and frame — long before and certainly since his death, but never have. I have also intended having many transferred to discs, but haven’t done that either, though now I’ve finally retired, so theoretically I should have time to do so. Am reminded of the saying about “good intention” and where that road leads. I recall when he abruptly ceased taking photos, or even those of family, as his health caused him to lose interest in so many things. I thought I was doing everything I could do to rejuvenate his motivation, but was generally unsuccessful. I still occasionally think of something new or different I might have tried. Oh well!

  18. Dear Friko, it's not just the past but light captured in silver salts, film emulsion or digital imprint --light of other days. These miracles remain, and hopefully encourage us toward the future. I still have some strength to send and I send it to you.

  19. I have thousands of photos in the digital cloud, most of them are for my recipes. I am not a good photographer but I enjoy taking photos and posting them on Instagram. It keeps me entertained. I took a class at the local Junior College and enjoyed it. I have drawers and boxes of photos from my family and I started to sort them to make albums for my family but I haven’t worked on them for years. I bought some blank cards and glue photos on them and send them off.

  20. What a lovely entry. You have the matters of photography spot-on.

  21. I have many pics of my married years here in Canada ... husband, kids, livestock and landscapes ...but hardly any from before ... Love, cat.


Comments are good, I like to know what you think of my posts. I know you'll keep it civil.