Tears in rain.

One of my sisters and a niece of ours in Canada started a conversation online about old photographs and started swapping what ones they had. They didn’t have many but in terms of genealogy, got back pretty far. There was an old picture of my father at what looked to be him at about twelve years old. Terribly blurry, photo of a photo, but it was unmistakably him. Weired thing about the way he was glaring at the camera reminded me immediately of my youngest brother who’s long gone.

There was also a photo of his own father in long shot and not very distinct, but the stance was very Edwardian – an impression of a gentleman farmer, but in a modest way.

Some more photographs when he was older, perhaps just into his early twenties. Playing the fife with two of his cousins for a friend’s wedding as their gift for the occasion. Somewhere in Depression times I’d say, when money for gifts would have been tight. It was a high summer evening that was so hot, the reception was moved out of the village hall and celebrated out in the open with the “band” sitting atop a ditch cross-legged like three Leprechauns and playing their socks off like the dashing young blades they all were, judging by the picture. They were all cousins as you might see from the familial resemblances and the three good heads of hair.

Some other ones of a him in his bachelor days working on cars or sitting on a motorbike. He was just making his bones in the cutting-edge technology of repairing motor cars. As a juvenile I was always interested in spanner work, speed and especially motorbikes. He never mentioned his youthful passions in that area and strongly disapproved, but what came out during the picture swap was one him racing on one.

It couldn’t have been on a circuit, but road racing on ordinary roads. Extremely dangerous, even to this day, as witness the last one still going – the Isle of Man TT, which unfortunately still claims a lot of lives despite immeasurably improved safety. If you came off on a corner and hit a drystone wall, it wouldn’t have had a happy ending. Do as I say, not as I did …

There was a single one of my mother as a young woman sitting atop a tractor, probably in WWII times. Fully coated up against the weather and wearing a stylishly slanted beret, which was all the rage in those times. Being of farming stock, where everybody worked, the first vehicle she learnt to drive was a tractor. The first vehicle she learnt to drive on public roads was a deuce and a half truck. It was pretty much a six-wheeled tank you didn’t argue with in traffic, a driving style that never quite deserted her for the rest of her life, whatever she was driving.

The first picture of them together as a married couple is probably in the late 1940s and they look like quite the glittering couple. His businesses had obviously prospered over the years. A terrible quality picture, but seeing him wearing tails and her in a mink coat on a night out to some event getting their picture taken by the official photographer was a bit of an adjustment from them just being plain old Mum and Dad. A touch of Ginger and Fred about the whole photo.

There were a few others I hadn’t seen. My father’s oldest brother somewhere in the 1920s at a guess. A very movie star studio shot of him. He’d moved to New Jersey and for reasons known only to him and his business partner, a Jewish guy he bumped into there, set up a piano manufacturing concern. By all accounts he could charm the birdies out of the trees and sell snow to Eskimos, but he couldn’t make a piano to save his life. The Jew couldn’t sell chilled water to a man dying of thirst in the middle of the Sahara, but on the other hand, he forgot more in a day about how to make a piano than anybody else ever learnt in a lifetime.

A perfect business partnership that enabled them to raise big families. When they retired, they sold the business and moved everyone down to Florida together. Why break up a 40 year partnership? The two old codgers settled in well, with one of the grandchildren down there eventually playing for the Miami Dolphins.

A few I hadn’t seen included my maternal grandparents on their farm and a great uncle who’d prudently disappeared off to Australia sometime in the 19th century in the same way that Butch and Sundance had escaped off to Bolivia and probably for similar reasons, except he did it with greater success, which is to say he stayed alive down there. He was a bit of a charming rogue, always up for some devilment, if family folklore was to be believed. There’s a lot you could read into those twinkling eyes and his smile in that portrait. The sort of young beau mothers warned their daughters about, unless my intuition fails me.

For the best part of its first hundred years, photography wasn’t a hobby, but rather a profession. The box brownie camera, the model-T of a mass produced and affordable camera would eventually change that, but in the meantime if you wanted a family photo or a portrait done, that could only happen in a photographer’s studio. Given how primitive and pernickety the equipment was, it could only be used by a professional, especially when they not only arranged the shot, lit it, and then developed and printed the results. Getting that half way decent shot of my father racing a motorbike took a lot of skill with the equipment available at the time. It had to have been taken by a professional, a press photographer, because he was starting to win a few races.

Post WWII and into the 50s with the advent of affordable cameras and facilities to get film developed and printed, things got slightly easier for the amateur photographer but still very few people had family snaps in that era unless someone in the family or extended family had photography as a hobby. It was blindingly complicated just to take a snap.

You had to master film speed, focus, aperture, depth of field, never mind composition, and then balance them all off against each other depending on how good the lighting was. Plus it was expensive. You shot a roll of film, sent it off for developing through a local shop providing that service, and got them back two/three weeks later, which is when you realised you might have cocked up an important shot one way or another. It was all about “catching the moment“, as the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson expressed it. After a delay of two weeks, there was absolutely no way of taking that picture again. You hadn’t been quick enough to capture that exact moment, or you’d screwed up the mechanics of taking the picture.

I was the one who took an interest in photography and from an early age always had some kind of claptrap camera, invariably pre-war and bought at various flea markets or second-hand shops, but as long as it’d take a standard roll of film and I could get it to go click, it was worth a chance and a bit of haggling. Because of that hobby, I was the one who had pictures to share of our family and my siblings, especially when we were teenagers or younger. There’s always something fascinating about seeing yourself so young, or even seeing your parents when they were the same age as their grandchildren are today. Looking at the size of my siblings, some of those pics are easily 40 years old. It was me taking them on my first camera.

All the pictures shared by me were smart phone shots of the original prints, so the quality isn’t very good, and the negatives are long misplaced, but without me having those prints, those original photos would be gone forever.

The first major world event that was thoroughly photographed was the American Civil War (1861-65). All the negatives were on big glass plates roughly a foot square. After it was all over, photographers of the time had huge stores of glass negatives that were no longer news worthy. In the end, for reasons of space, they sold them off wholesale to people who were building conservatories and greenhouses. With the passing of the years, the sunshine bleached out the images and they were all lost to posterity, like “tears in rain” as Roy Batty said.

I sometimes think we’re heading into a similar loss of folk history with mobile phone photography. Because they’re rarely printed out, they’ll all be gone forever within a few decades. Phones will be lost, transfers of pictures to new phones will get cocked up, and because they aren’t in a print album somewhere around the house, they won’t be picked down from a shelf and leafed through by children or grandchildren or perhaps even great grandchildren. Being aware of that, I tend to save selected ones to hard disk and burn a DVD of them, take it into town and get some prints, though I’m not as diligent at doing that as I’d like.

What will also be missed by them, is asking you about the people in those old fuzzy, black and white pictures. The stories you can tell of those darling dead that reanimates them and brings them back to life. About their great grandfather and great grandmother, as young people, one racing motorbikes like a death wish maniac and the other barreling a massive US military truck down narrow country lanes like a madwoman, both with no fear. Of a fast-talking wise guy and a Jew boy setting up a business where they fought like cat and dog for 40 years, but it kept both of their families in bread and beans, and they went into the sunset together. About the wild ones, bush rangers and constables puffing away in a hopeless pursuit of them.

About others back deep in the family tree who never had a photograph of them taken in their lifetime. I know their names and some of their stories but not their images. Perhaps that’s the way it should be for a number of reasons. Some of those stories are simple and good, some are about getting through some very tough times, and some have an old world cruelty about them, and they’re the ones I choose not to pass on.


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8 Responses to “Tears in rain.”
  1. Ian Clement says:

    Thanks, Pointman Great shot of your Dad racing. I envy you!

    A faithful reader on the west coast of Canada.

    Sent from my iPhone



    • Pointman says:

      Thank you for the kind words Ian. There was a cousin of my grandmother who left for Canada chasing work and it those days, it meant you’d never see them again. By chance, a friend of hers said she’d seen this Canadian soldier in town who was the spitting image of her cousin. On the strength of that alone and a slim hope, she got herself into town and tracked him down. An easy bit of tracking I’d imagine. She found him with a bunch of his comrades in a pub and they had a great reunion.

      He was in transit with his regiment to the Western Front, I’d guess. He survived the Great War and returned back to Newfoundland, but they kept up an active correspondence until he passed. She mentioned in passing to me that he’d never married and I asked why, because I was used to an extended clan where everybody got married, had kids and the usual stuff. She thought about it and simply said he’d had a very hard war, in her manner of indicating that subject was very definitely closed. He’d be one of the ones I’ve no image of and know only a piece of the story.



  2. Retired Dave says:

    It is always good Pointy to get photos of family you have not seen before. One of my second cousins who had never met before came to see me and had some pictures of my mother and grandmother I had not seen before.I knew my mother had been her cousin’s bridesmaid, but a photo of the group cemented a memory.

    Your mention of the harder times most of our families endured, always reminds me that I don’t pity them for what they went through. I just have a deep respect for them.

    BUT as we know the world just gets worse all the time!!! That St. Greta told me so.


  3. John Garrett says:

    As one who inherited the role of family historian and photographer, your thoughtful and interesting reflection rings true.


  4. John White says:

    I recently returned to the UK from New Zealand for my mother’s funeral. I met up with one of my Aunt’s who I have probably seen 4 times in 35 years and for the first time alone as we went to her house for some tea.

    She dug out 4 old photos albums that went back to the early 1920s when my grandparents met, getting married, my aunt and mother being born in the 30s and 40s. The albums went up until 1948. There was an immense amount of story telling to back up the photos.

    We found a notebook my grandfather kept of roads trips around the UK in the 1930s, how far he travelled each day, how petrol (and oil), the cost, cost of B&B.

    I’ve started using online photo books that I order and get printed. I’m trying to do one for each year, and I can add notes on comments about the photos.


  5. Erny72 says:

    Thanks for another personal reflection Pointy.
    I’d venture another doubtful opinion about the progress we enjoy thanks to digital photography, especially by batphone, in that the sheer volume of ‘happy snaps’, usually over half of which are, for one reason or another, crap, means very few people would ever think to kill some time flipping through the collection. I’m guilty as charged having recently discovered a 1TB external hard drive, reserved exclusively for archiving family photographs, can not accept any more. Clearly no one is going to decide to take a leisurely ten minute peek at such a tome and if that disc comes to greif, there are few backups. My wife, aka ‘the paparazzi’, can especially be creditted with filling the hard drive. Mostly with ‘selfies’.
    We were in the habit of producing a photo-album in a word or pdf document to e-mail to family after eventful travels and this eventually morphed into having books printed on Blurb for our more significant travails. So at least somefamily roadtrips are captured in hard format for posterity.
    I reckon the idea of taking the best photographs and printing them for albumns is a good one but it will be a substantial undertaking. Indeed, it’d be on par with my Dad’s project to convert all his old family slides (about 50 year’s worth) to jpg files, although I don’t have the middleamn step of setting up acamera on a tripod in a darkened room and photographing the slides projected onto a white wall.
    The ‘Instaspam’ generation may also miss the family photo galleries hung on the walls of family homes; it’s certainly not as common among friends of mine as it was among my older relatives. I recall walking into my late grand parents house and on every visit,lingering to look at the family gallery hung on the walls of the passage; my old man and his two eldest little brothers as young teenagers smiling out of a black and white portrait, despite home made bowl cuts and the ‘colourised’ portrait of my grandparents on their wedding day, Pa wearing his air force uniform, were always my favourites.
    Better start sifting through this archive HDD…


  6. Pointman says:

    @Graeme No.3, I went for Lord Gaga of the BBC too, not because I think he’s a chance but he’s become such a repellent population controller and generally a hater of humanity.



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