Friday, August 24, 2012

Faded Photographs

Recently I was sorting through a mountain of old family photographs. It was quite an accumulation that included portraits, formally posed occasions, school photos and a large number of snapshots.

Photos are such a remarkable, personal reminder of our past. A mere glance reveals captured moments from long ago. Looking at a photo can transport us to another time and place allowing us to relive a family trip, a special birthday or just enjoying burgers on our new grill.

There is something almost reverent about sorting through photos, like handling precious and irreplaceable icons.

Our family photos date back to the early 1900s, when taking a photo was a memorable procedure and reserved for special occasions. One early picture was taken at some type of family gathering when my father was about 5 years old. The setting appears to be my great grandfather's farm. Family members are gathered in a group, some standing, others seated in buggies, children down front on the ground. The photographer was likely a professional as the result was posed and staged so that everyone in the large group is clearly visible.

In the very early days of photos, neck restraints were used to prevent subjects from moving during the long exposure time. Generally photographs were taken in a studio setting. People often wore their best clothes. Occasions being recorded were such momentous occasions as engagements, christenings, landmark wedding anniversaries or military enlistment. Photos had yet not reached a casual level.

By the 1930s, cameras were smaller and found in many homes. The result was the snapshot, everyday events captured in an instant. Many cameras had become so easy to operate that the entire family could use them. Flash bulbs made it possible to clearly capture indoor events. Decorating the Christmas tree, dining with relatives or a sleeping family pet were fair game for snapshots. We could record what our houses looked like, how we dressed and friends we knew.

Organizing and sorting old photos reveals a cohesive pattern to our lives. We observe how people changed over the years. I was struck by how young my parents looked during a time when they seemed -- at least to me -- quite mature. Examining such photos now puts things in a new light. Kids are often busy being kids and miss so much of life as it goes on around them.

Photographs are private treasures. They record intimate events that we want to recall. I remember occasionally sharing family photos with special friends, carefully discussing the people in the pictures and how they fit into my life. Examining someone else's photographs is a special journey into that person's life, a privilege not to be taken lightly.

It does not seem logical that photos were intended to be displayed on so-called social media. Just because photographs can be shot with lightweight digital cameras on a moment's notice does not mean that large crowds of people need to see them. Nor do large crowds of people want to see them. Displaying photographs with total strangers is rude and invasive and demeans the nature of photographs.

Some years ago an article appeared encouraging grandparents to submit photographs of their grandchildren. I believe the occasion was some type of contest but I have forgotten the circumstances. Friends of mine were appalled that anyone would intentionally display a picture of a child in their family. After all, who might see it? Wasn't there a risk in having the child made known to the public? These arguments made a great deal of sense to me.

And yet, people now casually click photos and post them on social media for the world to see. The world.

Possibly posting photographs for wide distribution is not a wise decision.

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