Your family snapshots may be worth saving for posterity
June 19, 2002
It’s summertime! Time to fish at the lake, wash the car, dance at your niece’s wedding. Time to break out the old Brownie camera, or that new digital one you’ve been dying to figure out. Kodak moments abound!
My pal Nancy Raven gave me a book-full of Kodak moments called Shades of California: The Hidden Beauty of Ordinary Life. It contains 365 snapshots taken by Californians of themselves over the past 120 years. They were culled from thousands of images submitted by families to libraries around the state.
The book simply is a portrait of a state from the point of view of its people. There are the familiar pictures of class reunions, kids at the beach, dance recitals and barbecues. And there are less common ones of a wedding party’s hennaed hands, an Armenian mandolin band, the 1967 Oildorado Day well-puller champions, and a 1940s fleet of San Francisco bread trucks and their drivers.
Shades of California started when researchers who were looking for photos of pre-1965 Watts could not find a single image of the neighborhood’s citizens in the Los Angeles Public Library. They turned to the “archives” of everyday amateur photographers to provide what was overlooked by the public record. This mushroomed into a statewide search for photos of California’s
undervalued and under-imaged populations.
Through the project people became active members of their own history. At neighborhood “Photo days” around the state people turned out bringing their photo albums, ready to tell their family stories to archivists. Thousands of photos were copied for the public archives.
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Each snapshot reflects a moment — a time, a place, a hairstyle, a car model. And each offers a bit of mystery. We know names and dates but we can only guess at the circumstances of the people in the picture. Where did the cheery 1920s Chinese bride meet her serious young husband? What joke are DeMarcus, Tyrone and Travis sharing as they sit on the hood of their car in Oakland? What has become of the 25 fresh faced kids who were in the accordion band of South San Francisco in 1956? We can’t know. But we can appreciate each photo for its possibilities as well as the obvious information it shares.
Generally, the photos represent the more uplifting moments in the human condition. Most families photograph the good times — a 6-year-old’s birthday party, the first communion portrait, the fish trophy. Absent are shots of granddad on his death bed, family quarrels, or Junior in jail for possession. Still, the subject matter in the book is broad and the photos offer a collective portrait that you won’t see on TV.
For some people a photo is their legacy, a piece of themselves to leave behind in this world. “This is how I want to be remembered,” said elderly Charles F. Cuddy, dressed in overalls and a broad hat, seated in front of a rushing river and tall ponderosa pines.
I dug out my own family photos last week while we watched the Heidenreich place near our house burn down. It was terrible to see that old Victorian ranch house go up in flames — another piece of Nevada history gone.
As I watched the fire I remembered a photo I’d seen of old Henry Heidenreich on horseback looking at the camera through unseeing 90 year old eyes. He may not have ever seen that photo but it’s the way I remember him.
Since we thought the fire could spread that night, I piled my photo albums into a suitcase to whisk away with the family and dog in case we had to evacuate. I couldn’t think of much else I really couldn’t do without.
“Family photographs represent everything we can hold of the past, both our own personal past and the deeper past of our parents and grandparents,” says the introduction to Shades of California. Family snapshots — ordinary paper and glue creations, irreplaceable possessions to one family.
So this summer get out there with your old point-and-shoot, your treasured Nikon or that new digital wonder camera. Maybe someday we’ll see your family snaps in Shades of Nevada!
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