When I visited my mom this past Christmas I discovered she had a couple of boxes out from the attic of old black and white photos of various family members, many now unfortunately gone. All we have left are the memories and photographs of those who touched our lives and those who passed before we were born. How fortunate we all are to have this amazing invention of photography (and now digital photography) to preserve people and memories, like archeological bugs in amber.
As children we heard stories of various relatives; family members who existed before our times. Having photographs of them solidifies their memories for those of us who hear about them secondhand.
These photographs document not only their existence, but also the memories, fashions, cars and furniture of those eras. They also document buildings that have since been torn down; areas that have changed dramatically over the ensuing decades.
If the photographs are good enough, they also capture the essence, the personality, of the subjects in the photos. Some people have outgoing personalities that are easily captured on film. Their clothing, posing stance (striking a pose), facial expressions all exude a confidence, a comfort level, not only at being photographed, but with the photographers themselves. Other folks are uncomfortable at being photographed, even those considered universally attractive. Relationships between subjects in photos can be captured as well: How close (or apart) two individuals are can be easily deciphered. A good photographer can make the camera disappear, and make their subjects less self-conscious about having their photos taken.
I have been taking photos since I was 10 years old, and photography has become intuitive for me over the years. I instinctively know what makes a good photo. It clicks in your mind before the shutter clicks. I have been sketching even longer, which has no doubt aided me in my sense of composition. I have noticed in many of these old photos that the photographers stand a bit back from their subjects; you wish they were closer, to capture more detail and emotion by cropping out extraneous space.
My mom’s generosity in sharing these photos has been a revelation to me. Gazing at not only relatives before my time, but also photos of Mom and Dad when they were young adults, and even children, helps me to understand them in ways difficult to describe. Seeing photos of my maternal great-grandparents (whom my Great-Aunt Mimi described, Pa as a “… roughneck Irishman …” and Ma as a “ … refined lady …”) gives credence to the phrase “opposites attract.” Pa was a railroad conductor who, as the story goes, threw movie star Clark Gable off a train because he had no ticket. Pa was a “tough customer,” as was my paternal great-grandfather, Grandpap, who was one of Pittsburgh’s first mounted policemen, and who lived to a 103 years old. One of my favorite photos is of a youthful Grandpap in uniform sitting on his horse. Another favorite is from a Father’s Day in Pittsburgh with my great-grandfather, grandfather, Dad and me, at 4 years old. Four generations that will likely never be repeated again in my family.
One of the nice things we have today is with advances in technology, we can not only take clear, fine photos, but we can send them to family and friends via email and social media. Within seconds of an event you can send photos documenting said event on Facebook for all to see.
And the cameras themselves are almost mistake proof. No more family, friends and pooches with red ‘zombie eyes.’ No more pasty vampire faces from ultra-bright flashes. While not completely foolproof, the new cameras eliminate most mistakes an amateur photographer can make.
I love capturing family and friends in photographs. The tangible evidence of these folks and events helps to document these memories in our minds’ eyes for the rest of our lives, as well as those who live beyond us. These photographs document our existence to our loved ones, and comfort them long after we take our leave.
Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.