By default, I’m the keeper of family junk that nobody else wants—boxes of Kodak Brownie snapshots from my grandparent’s 1938 driving trip to Colorado, 35 mm slides of my brother and I everywhere from Yellowstone to Cape Cod, hundreds of photos of our own child, and stacks of fading portraits from different generations.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, we’ve collected these precious treasures that capture a moment in time. Today photography is different. Studios like CPI, a St. Louis-based company that ran Sears Photo Studios, are closed and Olan Mills, whose traditional 1950s black and white or sepia-toned photographs grace Baby Boomer walls, downsized in 2012.
Baby Boomers will remember standing like stair steps with siblings in a studio or a church basement, posing for a that slice-of-life family portrait.
Today, portrait studios can’t compete with an army of citizen photographers with increasingly sophisticated digital cameras. Those who stay in the business and succeed learn the tricks of the digital trade – the high school graduating picture is no longer a solitary head shot. If you can imagine it, a talented person with a good camera and good computer software can make it happen.
While the family treasures take up space, I’m glad to have them. The photos, even those printed on cheap, thin paper, all tell a story.
When our only child arrived, like other mothers I only saw his beauty and not the splotchy red mark above his nose.
I took the baby to the Sears Portrait Studio, where the clerk propped him up like an overripe melon against a tan backdrop. He wore a baby blue sailor suit with a yellow bow tie and a knitted, lemon-yellow jacket passed down from Uncle Tony. (It is the kind of photo no adult wants his mother to put on Facebook years later.)
Twenty-plus year ago proofs took days to arrive. Finally, this anxious new mother previewed the pictures. The clerk lined up all the pictures, six views, already printed on very cheap paper and in a variety of sizes.
The pictures were terrible. The baby’s head tilted awkwardly to the side, and his clothes were slightly wrinkled and askew. This new mother had not quite learned to dress her child.
“How much for all of them?” I said as I reached into my purse for the Sears “charge-a-plate” (which was what my mother called hers in the 1960s.)
I bought them all, and it cost nearly two hundred dollars. Included in the package were four 11 x 14s. that were almost lifesize and a little frightening.
Not even this precious baby’s adoring grandparents wanted a photo that large of him.
When I run across one of these photos, I laugh, and I remember the nervous young mother who thought – and still does – her child was the most beautiful baby ever born. I remember the excitement of mailing them to friends and relatives near and far, all of whom probably have stacks of similar pictures from their own families.
Today these Sears pictures fade in the closet along with those photographs and portraits I inherited when both grandmothers and my mother passed away.
I have pictures back to the Matthew Brady era – tintypes of unknown Civil War soldiers from my father’s side of the family. I have wedding and military and confirmation and prom pictures from my immediate family history, I’ve organized them in black-lined cardboard boxes, and labeled them by decade.
Will this matter to anyone in the future?
What will our children keep? Will they cherish their SmartPhones or external hard drives full of pictures, CDs, DVDs or whatever media is popular at the time? An earpiece that hangs off Google glasses that contain all of their children’s school pictures? A Dick Tracy-style watch with 10,000 digital wedding pictures?
Maybe I'm getting daft in my mid-to-late fifties, but I suspect somewhere along the line there will be a descendant who appreciates all that is saved.
Amy Abbott writes "The Raven Lunatic" column for multiple Indiana newspapers. She's the author of two books "The Luxury of Daydreams" and "A Piece of Her Mind." Her third book, "A Piece of Her Heart" will be published in 2014.
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