I’ve inherited several photo albums from my parents and my grandparents and it is a daunting responsibility to have them. I need to scan them and share them with my siblings for “ancestry” reasons, but also for the sheer value of the moments in the life of our family…moments that go back to the 1880s. Pictures of my great-great-grandparents…very staid, austere portraits of people bundled in abundant formal clothing, showing no particular joy in being photographed. Pictures of my grandparents first becoming parents in the 1920s are more candid, my mother as a baby, and my parents’ younger years around the time they got married and started a family. But the pictures center around holidays or birthdays, weddings or reunions…the moments of their everyday lives aren’t captured.
In the past, picture-taking was more of a challenge and expense of both time and money—camera settings weren’t automatic, camera-flashes were expensive and awkward, and development and printing of photographs took days. Thus each picture had more of a purpose than they seem to have today…posed pictures around the Christmas tree or the Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner tables; group pictures of “all the kids” crowding into frame; fashion pictures of new dresses or Easter outfits or new fancy hats; group pictures of “the sorority sisters” in their Senior year; and, of course, carefully posed wedding pictures.
These old photo albums are of moments and feelings and life, one special slice at a time…I find myself thinking about the moment when the picture was taken: planning, posing, framing the shot, checking the settings; all the while, the person/people in the picture waiting anxiously, patiently to be captured in that moment. They seem to be moments of pride or joy or beaming love. My mother’s early years—1 through 22—are captured in just 40 pages of 180 “moments.” I wish that I could find a way to spin it all together and fill in the blanks to know her whole life better…
At the end of the 1982 classic, Blade Runner, the leader of the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), describes the precious value of the private fleeting moments we all have in life. There is a privacy to each of our lives, and the old photo albums confirm that: they show me highly selected, shared, public moments…and they tell me, too, of all the private moments that happened when the camera was set aside. I know my family as a combination of the photos in the albums and all the imagined moments I’ll never really know. Roy Batty tells it well, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…and all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
I tend to view the old pictures in contrast to today’s abundant pictures of family and friends on Facebook and Instagram. Life seems ridiculously more happy and entertaining today than it was 100 or 80 or 60 years ago. In contrast to the photo albums, we all know people who post 180 pictures a month…maybe even 180 pictures a week! In reality, I’m not sure these modern moments are better preserved…I think we only notice and remember the great ones.