Hump Day: Unsettling family photos harken back to a harsher time

Hump DayHump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial section

HEADS UP: There’s a photo near the end of this post which may be upsetting to some.

With technology these days, it’s difficult to imagine the great lengths through which people went in days gone by in order to get a photo taken. It was expensive, awkward and difficult. Unless you stood deathly still (that’s foreshadowing for what’s coming up, by the way), the photo also tended to be slightly blurry.

Today, those of us with smartphones may take dozens of photos per day — many of them being “selfies,” the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2013 Word of the Year. In the pre-digital age, some of us would take the odd selfie or two, but wasting film and developing costs on this silliness was a waste of money.

I remember my late friend George from university would always take a selfie if he found your camera lying around. Since you couldn’t preview the photos you took like you can these days, you often didn’t know until you picked up your photos after being developed. “Oh what a nice photo of us at the party. That’s a not a very good photo of John. And… George!!! When did you get hold of my camera?”

This would inevitably lead to a fit of irreverent laughter from George. It was pretty difficult to stay mad at him and was all in harmless fun. I think I have one or two of his selfies tucked away in old photo albums somewhere.

I look back at the photos of my youth. Being the oldest child in my family, it seems like every milestone was documented, including birthdays, Christmas, being held in the arms of practically every living relative, the obligatory butt shot (me standing up with the help of leaning on the television screen), and an infamous diaper change photo taken right before my parents left the house for my baptism. (Apparently my timing for bodily functions wasn’t exactly convenient.) There was my mother dressed to the nines for church and holding me up by the ankles while slathering on ointment.

The brother and sister who followed aren’t nearly as well documented, however. Their toddler years are barely documented through photography, likely due to the fact that by the time my sister was born my parents had three children under the age of four. There was likely hardly enough time to breathe let alone snap photos of every burp.

Needless to say, there are no photos of my brother’s or sister’s baptism. My sister was probably baptized at lightning speed as my brother or I was probably crying or having a tantrum. I can just imagine the scene at my sister’s baptism and my mother thinking to herself, “Hurry up and throw some water on that damn baby so we can get the other two down for their naps before they drive me insane! Throw the water! Throw it now! Just spit on her! You’re a priest! I’m sure God won’t mind!”

As the years have passed, cameras have become a huge part of our lives. Through digital cameras and smartphones, virtually every aspect of our modern lives are documented — sometimes overly documented, mind you, but they’re documented at least. We don’t even think twice anymore about taking photos — or videos for that matter since every camera and smartphone out there also (usually) takes excellent video.

I had a couple of uncles who blessed us by taking family movies. What a treat to see everyone back then. Old photos are one thing but watching videos of your grandparents kissing in their backyard in the 1960s, your grandmother dancing a little jig at your late aunt’s wedding or Christmas morning at your cousins’ house is all something really special.

Which leads me to the foreshadowing comment from the opening paragraph. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, family photographs were rare. They were expensive and a true luxury. It was perhaps only on very special occasions such as weddings that a photographer would be hired. Regular households most certainly didn’t have their own camera. They were large and clunky and God knows which nefarious chemicals had to be used to develop the photos anyway.

Weddings weren’t the only special occasions for which photographers were hired. I’ve always had a bit of a morbid fascination (probably because it’s so tragic) with Victorian-era post-mortem photography, or taking photos of people after they’ve died for historical purposes.

Back then, minor infections by today’s standards could be deadly, not to mention epidemics such as influenza. If someone died, especially a baby or younger person before their wedding, the only way to remember them was to hire a photographer, often for a family photo. Yes, it sounds creepy and morbid, but there was no alternative. They didn’t have hundreds or thousands of photos like we do today. They had none, until they had to have one or forever forget what their loved one looked like. Hard to imagine today!

Victorian era - twins
Likely the first and only photo of these twin brothers together… but only after the brother on the right had passed away.

Many such photos are available online and offer a fascinating view into history. There are mothers posing with their deceased children; toddlers propped up using contraptions to make them look alive; and siblings posing with their late brother or sister. One heartbreaking photo is of two brothers in their early teens sitting on a sofa — one brother with his arm around the other, his dead brother’s head lying on his shoulder. Both are dressed formally for the occasion, the first and last photo ever taken of the deceased.

Whenever we complain about all these photos being taken in today’s modern society, try to remember what a luxury it was in days of yore when your one and only photo was taken after you’d gone through the Pearly Gates. Now, say “Cheese!”

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