Monday, March 05, 2012

Old Photographs

Jonah loves to window shop in antique and vintage stores. It's not my thing, but I go with him because he enjoys it. Although I often get burned out "antiquing," I am very interested in history. One of my favorite things is seeing an item and being able to attach it to a moment in history. For example, the other day we were in a store that had an old civil war canteen, and it just fascinates me to think that a real person held and used that canteen, perhaps in the midst of a battle. Stuff like that makes history come alive for me.

I remember a friend's great-grandfather was one of Charlie Chaplin's cameramen, and she had one of the canes Chaplin had used as his tramp character, which he had given to her great-grandfather as a gift. I remember holding it and thinking, "I'm holding a cane that Charlie Chaplin once held and used.

I felt the same way when I was walking on the floor of Mozart's apartment in Vienna

or looking at a balcony where Hitler had once given a speech.

It's one thing to see things and events in pictures or in books, but to see or hold a piece of history in the flesh just makes it that much more real to me.

I love looking at old photographs. It doesn't matter if I know the people or not. Black and white photographs fascinate me the most. I especially like photos from the late 1800s or the turn of the century. I love looking at what people are wearing or how much cities have changed.

The cool thing about photos - any photo - it that it captures a moment in time. Regardless of whether the people in the photo are old or dead, that moment when it was taken is captured forever, and I find that so intriguing.

I look at photos from my own past and can remember exactly what was going on the moment a particular photo was taken, and it almost feels like magic.

Famous photos of historical events like Lincoln and Grant at Antietam

or the soldiers lifting the flag at Iwo Jima

or Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald

or the first flight at Kitty Hawk

or the police dog attacking the young black man at Birmingham

or the Kent state shootings

have come and gone, but the moments are captured forever and burned into our brains. We may not have been there, but we are still witnesses to actual moments in time.

I like to look at old photos of people I don't know and speculate on who they were and what they were like. They may be anonymous people in photos, but they represent real people who actually existed and lived and breathed and had lives.

I recently saw a photo of some dead soldiers in the Civil War, and I thought, "These were real people with families and hopes and dreams, and here is actual evidence of all that being cut short. War is just as tragic, no matter what era it occurs in.

In one store we were in I found an old photo of a Victorian couple. It kind of fascinated me because in most photos of that era, the people are rarely smiling.

One of the reasons is that exposure time could be up to 15 minutes or more, and for someone to sit and smile that long was probably not as easy as just looking serious. It is also said that because getting your photo taken was a rare luxury, people took these events more seriously. Another theory says that because dental care was not as good back then, people weren't so willing to show their teeth. Regardless of the reason, there aren't many smilers in really old photographs. So this one was intriguing because the woman in the photo was smiling. It wasn't a big smile, but it was a smile, and I found that unusual. The man's expression made him look miserable, which made the caption someone had written on the back even more funny to me: "Grandma and Grandpa Kretchner on their wedding day - 1901."

They were probably happy, but that moment in time captured by that photographer showed a woman with a mischievous smile and a man with a weary look, and who knows why for sure. The husband may just have been tired or he may have been displeased with his marriage day. We'll never know, and that's what is so interesting to me. What was going on in the heads of the individuals in the photo the very moment that is captured for future generations to see.

(This is not the same photo I am referring to.)

I saw another photo just yesterday of what I presumed to be two sisters probably in the early 1800s. Both were probably in their late 20s. One was attractive. The other was kind of plain and was having what looked like a bad hair day. I just found it so interesting. I stared at it for about three minutes.

There's a photo of my family taken in the early 70s. None of us can be accused of having good style by today's standards, but those clothes and hair styles are what we wore in the 70s, and there it is for the rest of the world to see: a moment in time, captured forever.

Disclaimer: Not my family, by the way.

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