Few of us will tolerate a lousy family photo. These days, the marginal cost of a bad shot is exactly zero. It’s easy enough to delete and forget. So we do.
My Dad’s family did not allow themselves that kind of waste. Even in the 60s, Dad let me use the Hawkeye only after a short lecture on film. Always advance the roll, or you’ll get a double exposure. Never shoot into the sun. Keep your fingers away from the lens. You won’t get the same shot twice. Make it count. And so on.
All that advice was a little silly when I was a kid and we could afford to toss a few pictures. For Dad’s parents, though, family photographs were not cheap. It cost a dollar for a roll of film and more for processing. That dollar represented around two or three hours my grandfather’s time working as a short-order cook at local diner. It also represented the difference between dignity and humiliation: during the Depression, the family had more than once been instantly evicted from a flat, a few dollars short on rent. So every photograph was saved.
On April 11, 1943, my father, just inducted into the Army, spent a weekend back in Chicago. The apartment was dark, so the family posed outside. Eighteen snapshots survive, still snug in the photo corners my grandmother glued in place.
Of eighteen exposures, three are flawed. This is the first: my grandfather James, Sr. and grandmother Doris. White phosphor flares have burned out the image’s top, left, and bottom edges, almost obliterating the family dog. That, and the photo is off-center.There are other photos of my grandparents (and the dog). No one tosses this one, though.
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This is my grandmother with her daughter Mona. Another flare has scythed away a third of the photo. It’s as if, while they stared straight ahead into the lens, a specter descended towards them.
In the same album are a couple of other versions of this pose. Why keep this one?
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Then there’s this, an errant index finger half-eclipsing the lens:
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I think that something beyond frugality explains the survival of these prints.
I think it’s love: you just didn’t discard a family photograph, no matter its condition. People die. They die of flu, they die in battle, they die just because their hearts give out. You never know whether you’ll see anyone again.
You cherished the photographs, regardless of their imperfections. Each one was like a child who had suffered some disfiguring accident. You had to love that child, even with her spasms, her amputations, and her burn scars.
We don’t take photos that seriously anymore. Maybe we don’t take the people in our photos seriously, either.