Old Photos

Over the Christmas holidays I happened to be looking at an old photo album that had been my grandmother’s, with pictures mainly from the 1930’s. What was it about the thirties that made everyone seem so glamorous, even in the midst of the Depression? There were pictures of my grandmother and her sister, both fairly recent arrivals from Scotland, and their friends in gloves, jaunty hats, and fur collared coats. (I could almost hear  wistful 1930’s music playing in my head as I looked at them.) They had the latest hairstyles, too, and even the children were well dressed and stylish. Of course, people used to dress up for photos, but all the same, how do you manage to look well healed when you’re dirt poor? My grandfather (who, unlike the others, was in very few of the photos, and never looked at the camera or smiled) had little to no work for years during the thirties.

Perhaps they weren’t new outfits, and it was simply a testament to the durability of clothing back then. I do remember seeing a couple of cloche hats, which were more a 1920’s trend from what I understand. Aside from the glamour, I like the way they would stage the photos – a couple of people standing on the front steps, maybe one leaning against a cherry tree, two more sitting, and the kids in front, all of them (except my grandfather, if he was there) looking directly into the lens. These are beautiful photos, with perfect lighting and incredible depth. They make digital photos look almost crass in comparison. Those people took photography seriously, just as they took their clothing seriously. They couldn’t afford not to.

Speaking of the 1930’s,  I am finally now reading Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which is a brilliant book about the author’s unusual childhood on Corfu in the thirties. It’s well written and funny, but not in a slapstick way (which is what you might expect with animals turning up everywhere in the house). If only everyone could have such a childhood, and such an education.


~ by standupmimi on January 8, 2009.

4 Responses to “Old Photos”

  1. Your post left me inspired to see what we had for old photos. What turned up was a series of pictures of my wife’s grandmother. We think these pictures are post-war. Her grandfather is in a few of them (maybe he was taking the pictures) but there were a lot of pictures of her young grandmother on boats with friends, and even some with unknown men (their embrace seeming a bit too cozy for 1940’s plutonic relationships). People were at the beach, wearing suits and dresses, lying against driftwood and eating or just enjoying themselves. I wonder when the last time I sat on driftwood was?

    • Yeah, don’t you love those beach pictures? It’s like they were all at some important event (or church, maybe?) in their best clothes and then they all jumped in the car and headed to the beach, heals and all.

  2. There is a picture of Grace’s grandmother in her aunt’s piano room. The woman it portrays is a breath-taking beauty. The soft sepia tone of the photo highlights the gentle curve of the violin she holds and the eyes, dark and intense, capture anyone who looks at them.

    That is a portrait of an artist. It catches all the heart of the woman. I’ve seen family portraits done by professionals that seem to be designed to document offspring. They seem to say, “Observe the obvious genetic ties” and little else.

    I have a wonderful photo of my Great Grandfather sitting outside in his favourite chair smoking a pipe. He’s smiling at the photographer and looks very relaxed and very well dressed (well he was a bishop). The light seems to be fading and I imagine it’s late afternoon. He’s alone in the photo but I know a good friend of his must have taken the shot. I can almost smell the lamb roasting when I look at him.

    I have a fantasy of his friend showing off his new camera. Excited and eager to snap his good friend for posterity. My Great ancestor allows it with a hint of sarcasm in his eyes. It’s a fad, it’ll pass.

    His son, my grandfather, became a very good photographer and I sat through many slide shows of spider webs dripping with water and volcanoes pouring lava into tropical water. I remember seeing photos of Prince Rupert back in the days of canneries and fishing fleets. The waterfront was lined with boats and cranes. I’m going to have to go on a hunt for those.

  3. One of my favorite books is Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald, about her life on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle with her second husband and two teenage daughters in the early 1950s. Very funny and descriptive about what life was like on the island. When I visited a friend in Seattle 10 years ago, I made her take me there on the ferry, and we drove around trying to figure out where she lived to no avail. I think I’ll get it off my bookshelf and read it again.

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