They also are a particularly lovely and haunting reminder of how our imagined view of the past can be limited in ways we don’t even think about. It’s been mentioned before with regard to vintage color photography — and I really think it’s true — that the dominance of black-and-white historic images has us unconsciously assuming that the world of our ancestors was sort of gray and grimy. When we’re lucky enough to find well-preserved color images from the turn of the century, it truly feels like a peering through a window into a lost universe.
Yes, moms are present in these vintage photographs of babies and toddlers, holding them steady for the photographer, but hidden under afghans or rugs to make it look as if the grownup isn’t actually there. I spied a pair of trouser-clad legs in one of the photos, so it looks as if there were invisible dads, too.
A quick nostalgic Father’s Day detour here, with what I think is the earliest photo we have of my father, Peter Haigney. Not to say there might not be an earlier picture of him somewhere. But this is the earliest one that we had among those rescued from the Evil Magnetic Photo Albums. It was taken in South Brooklyn when he was probably 3 years old, which would mean about 1927.
The full picture is a wonderful shot of Dad and some of his siblings standing on a wooden, platform-like structure. This structure defied explanation for many years, until recently, when a friend who saw it said she thought it might well be the entrance to a coal cellar, having remembered a similar set-up at her grandparents’ Brooklyn house. (Thanks, Karen!)
Dad died of a heart attack when I was 23, so Father’s Day went on hiatus for me personally for a while, until the birth of my first child. Meanwhile I lived it vicariously through other fathers in my life — my brother, my friends and of course, my father-in-law, all of whom got me in the habit of thinking about Father’s Day in broader terms.
Sure, it’s a day to miss the fathers who aren’t here anymore to pretend great joy at the latest bad necktie gift. But it’s also nice to send good wishes to all the dads out there who, I hope, are enjoying the day, whatever color the necktie turned out to be. Happy Father’s Day, guys.
Oh, those wacky Internets. They can do genealogy harm. (See: Online Tree Synthesis, Or How I Traced My Lineage Back To The Goddess Athena In Only Two Weeks. Fictional title. I hope.) But they can also do great good.
Plain old Googling, for example, helped me tease out a context for some World War II photos of my father’s — including the great dog picture I posted a few days ago.
The pictures date from my father’s Coast Guard service. All I know about them is what my mother told me: They were taken in Europe by my father at some point. There is no identifying information on the backs. They’re a bit of a mystery. But a few weeks ago I decided this was an unscientific and downright wimpy attitude. Time to take a systematic look at these old pictures.
Some of the pictures just made me smile.
I knew they were taken at Le Havre – brilliant deduction, this! (Note the tongue-in-cheek mileage markers.)
And I noticed that the pretty tower in the background of the photo with the dog looked the same as the tower in this picture, below.
Also I noticed the big “61” on the ship behind the rubble in the shot below.
Here’s what I found when I went looking for clues about these visual hints.
|Clue:||Source (And What It Told Me)|
|The “61” on the side of the ship.||
|The Le Havre sign.||
|The tower on the partially bombed-out building. There’s a cross on the spire of the square tower.|
My dad died when I was 23, long before I got serious about genealogy and, sadly, before I felt comfortable talking to him about his past. So these bits and pieces of information are oddly comforting. As I write up my notes on this album, it’s nice to be able to say something more than “Dad’s photos, taken someplace during World War Two.”
Another in an occasional series on how Operation Magnetic Album Mayhem is going.
So obviously, I was not paying sufficient attention over the years to various lectures on how color in old photographs inevitably fades. I mean, I was aware that it was a problem for some people, but it wasn’t going to happen to my family’s photos, right? At least, not until I opened some albums, took a good look and realized that it had, it had.
To summarize, if you aren’t up to clicking through the links: Color process is a finite, fickle thing, and if you’ve got vintage color photographs, chances are they have faded, often badly. They will fade that much faster if they are in frames exposed to direct sunlight. But they even fade if they’re enclosed in albums. They even fade in the dark. It’s awful.
A thread on a digital photography forum pointed me in the direction of a book by a specialist called Ctein (that is his name; he only goes by one): Digital Restoration from Start to Finish. They were saying that this is the bible on the topic. I read an excerpt, a case study in restoring a faded high school portrait, and it piqued my interest enough to want to read the whole thing.
Without an arsenal of artistic software at my command — Adobe Photoshop Elements is as sophisticated as I get — I’m not sure what I personally can do to make my scans of faded color pictures look better. Still, I would like to understand the dynamics of the process a lot more than I currently do.
Fortunately, my dad had an extended fling with color slides in the late sixties and the seventies. Unfortunately, I believe the slides may be a mix of Kodachrome and Ektachrome. Kodachrome had a great shelf life; apparently, even 60-year-old Kodachrome slides still look pretty good. Ektachrome slides, on the other hand, put you right back in the color-faded doghouse.
Photos are such a pain. I’m sorry, I know I should be all saintly and archival and preservationist here, but really. There are so many of them, and they’re undated, and uncaptioned. And they’re fading, even as I write. The old albums and slide carousels are taunting me with a siren call, like the “beating of his hideous heart” that sent Poe’s villain screaming his evil deeds to the bewildered cops.
Except instead of a muffled thud, it’s a hiss: Weeeee’re faaaddddinnggg…sloooowly but sureeeelllyy….
OK, gotta get a grip. One step at a time.
How about this? Try for a greatest-hits collection. Maybe pick one photo from each endless series of babies and parties and vacations that really epitomizes the lot. (OK, panicking again at that thought, but whatever.) Then see if it’s possible to make a nicer print from the original negative. My parents were good about keeping the negatives, after all.
Make it a group thing. Have a negative party with the siblings. Yeah, that’s it.
(Except that “Negative Party” doesn’t sound like a good event title for the Evite, though. Hmmm.)
Quite a while back I wrote about evil magnetic photo albums and how scores of my family photographs were held in their death grip. The new year has brought a renewed burst of energy for this project on my part.
I’ve already covered the details of my agonizing over the decision to break up the old albums. (Pro: The glue harms the photos! Con: Removing them could splinter them!) For me, the decision was made when it became obvious the glue on many pages was failing on its own, and the photos were beginning to drop out anyway.
Also, it is so wonderful that they are not stuck anymore — that they can be slipped out of their sleeves for scanning and sharing. (Not too much mobility, though — some are really fragile.)
Beyond that, here are some notes about the process:
1. The unwaxed dental floss method of removing stubbornly stuck pictures (see here for a detailed description) is working well. Pictures are coming up very nicely, with inscriptions on the back intact. I’ve noticed, though, that one has to be very careful with prints that have the crinkle-edge borders, lest the floss catch one of the sawteeth and slice into the photo rather than underneath it.
2. It’s interesting how much my increased understanding of the family timeline has increased my ability to identify and date pictures properly. In fact, new genealogy facts — or more precisely, facts new to me — have cleared up some previously “unidentifiable” items. While some photos remain a complete mystery, I’m beginning to think that it’s premature to abandon hope entirely that they will ever be identified.
3. I’m saddened by the deterioration of the color of many prints from the mid-fifties onward. Was this a result of the magnetic albums, or just a feature of the print process? I guess I’ll be reading up on this topic.
4. I’m grateful now for my dad’s holding my feet to the fire with regard to studying German, although it was a complete bear at times. Very handy for inscriptions on my mom’s side of the family.