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The way we weren’t
Sept. 27, 2010
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by Ivan Raconteur

I was looking at some old photographs recently, when it occurred to me that photos have improved dramatically over the years.

I don’t have many photos of my grandparents. Most of those that I have were taken in the portrait style that was popular in the first half of the last century. That is to say, the subjects all look like their shoes are too tight, they drank vinegar instead of coffee with breakfast, and they had just been informed that they were going to be audited by the IRS.

All the men in old photos look like undertakers, and the women are worse. Most of them look like crypt-keeper’s daughters, or the wardens of unusually bleak eastern European women’s prisons. There wasn’t a giggler among them.

Judging by the old photos I have seen, it is astonishing that the human race was able to reproduce.

The inhabitants of old photo albums look like they would be incapable of canoodling.

They look so serious, one imagines that negotiations of any description must have been conducted on a rigid and formal basis. One wonders if even married couples addressed one another by their first names.

I like to think our ancestors were a lot more fun than that. I prefer to believe it was just their idea of the way portraits should look.

Even photos taken in more recent years may not accurately portray the people represented.

I only have one photo of my entire family, taken when I was 19, and it is awful. I hate it because it was taken in my father’s hospital room a few days before he died, and that is not the way I remember our family.

In the photo, my father is sitting up in bed with all sorts of tubes attached to him. My mother and sister and I, along with my three older brothers, are gathered around the bed. We are mostly smiling, but it was not sincere.

It is the fact that we appear so out of character that makes it seem unreal.

A lot of the informal photos I have of our family from my childhood have flaws.

Part of this is due to the quality of the equipment that was used to take them, and part of it is due to operator failure.

In our family, as in many others, my mother took most of the photos. She enjoyed taking pictures, but she wasn’t very good at it.

They called her the executioner because she had a strange habit of cutting people’s heads off.

She would have made an excellent staff photographer for a witness protection program, because unless one could recognize people from the neck down, it wasn’t easy to identify the people in her photos.

We tried to convince her to aim higher when she was taking pictures, and sometimes she listened, but then she would compensate by cutting people on the edge of a group out of the shot.

Sometimes, she would mix things up by adopting an avant-garde style, taking photos at all sorts of weird angles. Looking back at some of those photos, it is not always clear what she intended to capture.

Despite these challenges, I like to collect photos of my family and friends, and I like to have them around me. The bachelor pad is adorned with an abundance of these photos.

Unlike the stern and forbidding photos of my ancestors, most of the images that line my walls depict the good times.

Some are personality shots, and offer glimpses of some wonderful characters.

Among my favorites are candid shots that show people throwing their heads back and laughing uninhibitedly as they share a joke or a good story.

That is the best kind of photograph – the kind that helps us to remember the fun and the great experiences we have had.

I especially enjoy photographs that depict people who are relaxed and being themselves.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some of these photos also include evidence that certain adult beverages were being consumed at the time. Maybe all the old-timers needed was a good belt to help them lighten up a bit.

I don’t know why our ancestors felt they had to be so serious in photos, but I’m glad that things have changed for the better.

I am also glad that we live in an age where decent cameras are inexpensive and convenient. Even the cameras in our phones and computers can produce surprisingly good results. I am convinced that even my mother could have taken good photos with the latest generation of digital cameras.

The abundance of new equipment and technology makes it easy to record and share the people and events of our lives.

We can finally capture images of the way we really are, rather than being limited to artificial images that depict us in ways we aren’t.


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