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  Old Photos

John W. Pinkerton


am a little reluctant to look at old photos.   There's something profoundly sad about staring into the eyes of folks who have departed this world or young hopeful faces that have turned old and not nearly so hopeful.

It doesn't matter whether they are my family's photos or photos of  folks I do not know, whether they are recent photos or photos from long ago.

Most photos, of course, are pictures of people; occasionally in our family photos we run across a photo of a mountain or a beach, but mostly it's people…not people going about their daily lives cooking their meals or driving their cars or brushing their teeth, but people stopping the momentum of their daily lives to look into the lens of a camera as though they wish to be recorded at that moment, as if that moment is worthy of being recorded.

I'm uncertain as to why we take so many photos of folks.  Perhaps Aunt Sally begs for one more photo of their relatives as they depart from their visit or little Suzy is graduating from kindergarten or Tommy just returned from jail.

Linda in recent months has taken on a project, organizing and distributing our photos and the photos of my mother's.  Thousands of photos…mostly a repetition of the same faces over and over again in various poses, but always looking into the lens of the camera.

A couple of years ago I bought at a junk store two old photos nicely framed.  I bought them for the frames, not the photos in them.  It was some time before I got around to using the frames, but I could see the framed faces of a young woman and a young man.  The clothes and frame and style of the photo was fairly modern, and each photo obviously was taken at the same time.  These, undoubtedly, were photos taken early in their marriage.  Each looks happy, pleased to stare into the camera and smile.  Now, here the images were on the floor of my studio.  Why?  My guess is that this happy couple went their separate ways looking for happiness in the company of others who pleased them more.  But perhaps the reason these images resided on my floor was because of a tragic accident which took both of them from this life suddenly, and no one cared to save their images.  No one caring enough to save these photos is the saddest element of all.  Being an optimist, I'm betting on the former scenario.

Regardless of the era, the poses are not much different from one generation to the next although we seem to be more casual today than at the turn of the 19th Century.  Photos were rare then.  Today we often see not smiles but huge grins as though we are so very proud of the moment of the click.  One photo in the early 1900's might be the total for a lifetime.  Today we are lucky to escape life without being recorded thousands of times.

And now we have the selfie.  Quit it!  Stop!  Desist!  No one cares about your self-adulation…well, other than you.

I suppose one reason old photos make me sad is because the folks pictured look so confident, so self-assured, as though no harm could possibly come to them, but we all know harm does come to many of us: disease, war, tragic accidents, and debilitating old age.  Life seldom ends well; it just ends.

But what we leave behind is a face staring into a camera as though we will live forever, as though no harm will ever come to us.  It's not to be.

If we knew the deceased pictured, we probably feel a little sad at their departure.  If it is someone we never knew, I wonder what good and bad things happened after the photo was taken.

Pictures of men in military uniforms exude an air of health and strength and readiness for the challenges they may face.  Most of these photos are taken before they go to battle…not so many taken in their uniforms afterwards.

School photos of little kids not sure whether they should smile or not, are particularly sad if we consider that their lives soon will not be as simple as  homework and running across the school grounds.

For a self-professed optimist, I'm certainly a glum old soul today.