The collection of photographs sits in a series of old leather briefcases, some of whom I have tried to take care of over the years with oil and love, others that are simply losing the battle against time and are down to one, or sometimes, no locks.
Over the years, any semblance of a system has long gone so now the black and white photographs of my grandparents Cannon; my grandmother in her long fur coats climbing aboard massive cars in the 1930s are mixed casually with pictures from my youth.
While the topics and people posing vary, what strikes me as the photos are scattered on the desk is their size, each generation of pictures just slightly larger than the one before. The older pictures are small snapshots, often two or three inches across — the first ones in color from the sixties, perhaps even smaller still.
A small photograph doesn’t tell any less of a story, in fact, perhaps it tells more. Because instead of living in a digital world where we can snap hundreds of photos and casually discard the majority of them into a digital trash can with a drag and a click, once every snap counted.
A single photo was one of 24 or 36 on roll. If you were away on holiday, it might be one of three or four rolls you carried from Boston, on the plane, through the trip, and then home. Then the rolls went to Boylston Street and the photo store and you patiently waited a week perhaps and then, and only then, you saw what you had seen on your trip. Only then, did you know if you had your shot.
It’s the old pictures that really show me how times have changed. My parents were affluent, my father loved photography as did my grandfather, and these were important pictures and yet, they are all so small. The processing, the chemicals, the fact that there were color photos at all, all much more important to think about then.
When I see a small color picture of my parents and I in the garden in Gloucester, I know that my grandfather captured us there, drove the film home to Ann Arbor, developed it, probably even then got an extra copy of the one shot that he liked so much and mailed it to my parents.
That picture, that moment, was precious. As I think, life and what makes up life should be. Today in times of affluence, or even perhaps the false affluence that surrounds us, it’s so hard for us to remember that anything is precious.
“Turn out the lights” I tell my children. But even for me, there never was a question of running out of power. So how precious can a child see electricity when it’s always there? Always on? Always available? Ironically, it’s when I travel with my kids, as I am now, on an island where the power does go in and out, that they understand.
It’s not just power, our supermarkets are lined with food, boxes and boxes of it, our stores stacked with the latest smart phones, our houses are bigger, our cars faster. Too much of everything has created a world where nothing is truly precious anymore.
The world has changed so much around us in just a few short generations. My mother grew up in the Depression and was one of the few people she knew with power. Think of the phrase “she has power.” It meant for an entire generation merely the presence of electricity, it meant someone of wealth and affluence whose house glowed at night, with lights.
My grandfather was in his 30s before power came to his family farm in Iowa. In one generation, we went from no photography, to black and white to color and now, now, the only time I wait for photographs is when I get large scale pictures blown up to be framed for the walls of my house. 24 inches by 36 inches, not a problem, bigger? Sure. Blow it up. Blow it out.
This picture sits framed, large in my living room, from Havana this past year.
Around the corner, the small photographs hang on the back of the fireplace, they tell a different story.