Over the Christmas holidays we had a get-together with the extended family back in my home town. It had been quite a while since that many of us were all in the same room at the same time, so it was really lovely to be together. There are now five younger cousins including my own two girls, ranging in ages from ten to two. Naturally enough, we lined them all up on the sofa for a group photo. I’ll probably print a copy of it for our family album, to give 10YO and 4YO a tangible reminder of their cousins who they don’t see very often. For one reason or another though, we didn’t do an equivalent group shot including their parents and grandparents.
The following day back at home I made a start on scanning the hundreds of old 6″x 4″ photos which I’ve inherited from my mother and grandparents. It’s literally going to take me years to get through them all, and my brother has probably three times as many photos which he’s working through as well. But fired up with New Year’s resolutions, I got down to it and managed to scan one packet of family photos which I estimate dated from around 1979/80. Like I said, it’s going to take years.
Comparing these old photos to the previous day’s family group shot, it was lovely to see the resemblances between the young cousins and their parents at the same age 35 years ago. But the similarity which struck me most was the composition of the photos – who was in them, and who wasn’t. Just like we do now, our grandparents and parents had prioritised taking photos of the children, and there were very few photos of the older generation, which made me feel quite sad.
I’m sure I’m not the only parent who thinks their children are just miraculously, heart-stoppingly cute and adorable. So we snap away with our smartphones and digital cameras, trying to preserve each wondrous step on their journey. I have literally hundreds of pictures of the kids on my phone (all slightly blurred, never quite capturing the precious moment I was probably too busy rummaging for my phone to properly appreciate) but hardly any of myself or Husband. For previous generations, who had to manually adjust the speed and light settings for each of the twenty four photos on a roll of film, then wait a week or more to get them developed, it was probably even more important to capture those fleeting images of childhood. Perfectly understandable then, that there’s so few photos of the older generation. And yet, and yet…
When you look back as an adult, it’s the photos of the older generation that matter most. Of course, the photos of our childhood selves are sweet and funny, with our pudding-bowl haircuts and hand-knitted sweaters, but it’s the pictures of parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles in their younger days which you smile and linger over, particularly if those people are no longer around. Now I particularly love those pictures that we used to call the end-of-the-roll photos – after you’d got home from your week’s holiday, those shots of family having a cup of tea, doing the washing-up, or messing around in the back garden, so you could get to the end of the film and send it off. Glimpses of still-young people living their lives, at home or at work, mean so much when those people have gone, and their empty houses have been sold.
My grandfather had a knack for photography and took so many photos of me and my cousins as children, but he was rarely in front of the camera. That’s why shots like this one, of him taking a break at work, are so incredibly precious to me.
I think we’re literally too self-effacing as adults. We risk editing ourselves out of our family history when we say, as we all do far too often: “I look terrible in photos, you don’t want a picture of me…” Because actually, our kids do want photos of us – at least they will do one day.