As an avid Instagrammer, I have followed with interest—and plenty of enjoyment—many vintage photo collectors. It is fun to scroll through a feed of old black-and-white images that bring to life times past: to see families gathering in their linoleum-floored ’60s kitchens, kids adorned in their ’70s patterned outfits playing outside in their yards, multiple generations sitting around on ’50s-era lawn chairs while someone barbecues. And all those car shots—what could feel more nostalgically American?!
These photos are weighted with a sense of time that is palpable. The curvy edges of print snapshots are often included in the digital representations of these images—they are clearly of another time. And yet, they are recognizable; they capture moments and milestones and emotions that often mirror our own. In their anonymity they become universal...in a most personal way.
I find the whole “found photo” movement intriguing. I am attracted to it for the aforementioned reasons. And yet, while I am “liking” image after image that makes me smile and remember, I feel a twinge of sadness. For while these photos are recognizable to me in their universality, their individual stories have been lost.
A recent New York Times article explores the phenomenon in “Moments Big and Small in Vintage Photos.” It’s what got me thinking about found photos again, and what renewed that ache I often feel when looking at them.
Sarah Moroz writes:
And while fashion and fads may have changed, these faintly remembered slices of life still resonate with contemporary viewers. “I realized that what a guy was doing in the 1940s, I did in the ’70s and ’80s,” Mr. Schulman said of the range of both playful and emotional vignettes. “The themes of today are also the themes of earlier times — we’re not different.”
So true, and so clearly why I, like thousands of others, gravitate to these images.
I wish the stories attached to these photos were real.
I wish the memories associated with them belonged to the subjects and their kin, not anonymously to the world at large.
I wish we all valued our personal family archives enough to preserve and document them.
But I will cherish even more the vintage family photos shared by storytellers: the people who attach slice-of-life vignettes to their images, who share personal recollections and memories, places and dates and names to their pictures. The family archivists, personal historians, and memory keepers who use photographs as a means to remember to remember.
I am talking about:
- Rachel Labour Niesen, the steward of the #savefamilyphotos movement and one of the best at promoting this message.
- Kay Evans Little, who is “remembering my ancestors and family, one photo and story at a time,” and others like her using social media to share and celebrate the stories behind their family photos (two of my favorites: Rosa Rucco and Vivian Love).
- And the many folks who have taken up the #genealogyphotoaday challenge.