At some point in our lives I think many of us are given a collection of old family photos in order to look back on and preserve our family history. In my case, I was given some a few years ago by my mother and father. Pictures that I hadn’t seen before, and, at the time, I only took a quick look at them and then put them neatly back into their envelopes for safe keeping.
Recently I decided to start scanning some of these old prints just to see what they would look like in digital form. Some of the pictures were over 50 years old already and there are others of my grandfather when he was in the navy that are from nearly 100 years back.
I scanned them on an inexpensive Canon LiDE 25 flat bed scanner that I paid very little for many years ago and which still works really well for just simple photo prints like this. So one doesn’t need to spend a lot of money on a scanner (as little as $60) to be able to achieve some really great scanned results. Many of the pictures I was given were printed very small to begin with thus, not so easy to see them in detail unless you enlarge them. Usually I scan things at only around 150-200 DPI, but scanners usually give you many size resolution options for scanning. So I scanned these old photos at a much higher resolution setting of 600 DPI in order to make them into bigger digital files and to bring out as much of the detail as possible. Once the images started appearing in magnified form on my Dell 30″ monitor, I immediately made a couple of surprisingly interesting observations.
First, I noticed that once the images are blown up in front of me that I can start to get a visual understanding of the feeling and the details within the environs around the people in the photos thus, giving the images far greater visual impact. Then I also started to realize that a few of them perhaps have some genuine points of interest in a human-interest photographic sense. Others may also have historical value rather than just having familial elements. And for someone of my generation, or later, they also contain facets of a period gone by that are interesting to look at and give you a sense of how people dressed, the cars they drove, what brands were popular at the time, etc.
At first I thought that these photos would only be something I would scan for my own interests and never really show to anyone else because I think looking at family pictures of someone else’s unfamiliar relatives could be rather mundane. But eventually I started to realize that, even though the people in the photos would not be recognizable to others, that some of the pictures are actually well composed and contain both vintage and nostalgic elements.
In my case, some of the most interesting photos I found were of my mother that were taken right around the time I was born, photos of my father when he was in his late teens and then later on when he was at university. There are also ones of my grandfather when he was in the military and then others taken about 40-45 years after he left the navy and when he and my grandmother owned a traditional American ice cream fountain and candy shop.
What amazes me about the first photo of my grandfather below is the quality of the paper that it was printed on and the clarity of it given its physical age. Back then, prints were done on a high quality, thick paper card stock that had a matte finish and gave a bit of a textured and painterly looking quality to the prints. This old paper gives you the feeling that prints back then were something special to people to be cherished, far more than they are now. They were made to last a longer time without fading or discoloring and with more care put into developing them. Often the prints lacked the dynamic range of highlights to shadows we started seeing later in glossy prints starting in the 1950s once improvements were made in technology, but they at least had a very sort of classical look to them which makes them more unique than prints nowadays.
I am estimating the above photo was shot about 90 years ago, sometime between 1920 to 1925 when my grandfather was in the navy. He entered the navy at around age 19 and was enlisted for about 5 years until he was about 24 years old. He served on two different battleships. The USS California and the USS West Virginia. He had entered the navy about 2 years after when WW1 ended in 1918. My grandfather was born in 1901. So he was a teenager during WW1 and still too young to enter the military at that time. The photo also appears to have been shot by Atlantic Photo Studio in Norfolk Virginia, which is embossed into the paper and coincides with the fact he might have been stationed on the USS West Virginia at that time the photo was shot.
Unfortunately Atlantic Photo Studio no longer exists thus, I was not able to find out any information about who the photographer might have been that took the photo. Considering though the age of this photo, the sharpness of the lens was very good, and the studio setup was nice too. You can tell that it was shot against what looks like a studio fabric backdrop as I was able to notice there are also some small folds towards the bottom of the photo where the backdrop meets the floor.
The second shot below looks to have been taken around the same time when he was in the navy. This photograph seems to have been a quick shot taken on the street using natural light, perhaps by a friend. Notice the cigar in his hand. These days you rarely see men at around age 20 smoking cigars. I also like the shadow of the photographer in the frame caused by the strong, natural sunlight and which shows that the shot was likely taken with some sort of a box or view camera, rather than a later and more modern style of 35mm camera. 35mm cameras weren’t around then. If this photo was shot with a more modern camera with a viewfinder, then, as the photographer was taking the shot, you would most likely have seen his arms higher up and around his face within the photographer’s shadow. But you don’t see that here. Kodak Brownie box cameras were popular at that time. Seneca, Autographic, VPK, Ica, and Recomar were also some of the popular view cameras during that period.
The third shot is perhaps my favorite because of all the different elements going on in the photo. This image was taken with my grandfather and grandmother standing in the door frame to their ice cream fountain shop. They owned the shop from roughly 1950 to 1965, but I believe the photo was taken between 1963-1965 when my grandfather was in his early to mid sixties. That makes this photo about 50 years old.
What I like so much about the photo is his playfulness with the neighborhood boy and how you have some movement in the moment. The crispness of the facial expressions are great. How his hands are not blurry, despite the motion in the photo, suggests there was good daylight at the time the photo was taken and that a fast shutter speed was used to stop the action. Perhaps it was shot at close to 1/200th of a second. I also really like how my grandmother is appearingly disinterested in my grandfather’s activity and seems more captivated by something else that is going on outside of the photo frame. It kind of leaves one curious what my grandmother was so intrigued by. Notice the vintage looking Pepsi and Bell telephone signs in the windows on either side of them that serve as a natural framing. You can also faintly see a sign for Dairy Chest ice cream pops in the upper right window, a brand that must have disappeared a long time ago. Lastly, I noticed what looks like a few baseball bats for sale inside the store window. All things I would not have seen without enlarging this smallish photo print on a scanner.
I have decided to stop writing the first part of this post here and I will post the second part of this article soon and where I will show you another 5 historical photos relating to my grandparents’ ice cream fountain shop.
For the moment you may want to think about any old family prints you have tucked away which you might like to try scanning to see what sort of trip down memory lane that the photographs will take you on. Doing that may help you to start to recognize the photographic value and the efforts made by the photographers at that time to try and capture certain elements in their photos. As you can see from my own observations above, the subtle nuances start to become much more apparent as the photos come out of the drawer and onto the screen where they became enlarged and brought back to life.
*UPDATE #1 / 18-May-14* – I just posted Part 2 of this article. Click here to read it.
That was a treat. Thanks for sharing.
And I am also curious what your grandmother was looking at. It was probably nothing at all. But it’s what she was thinking about of whatever it was she saw is what I’m most curious about.
Thank you Sandy. I get all those same feelings too. Also, yes, I am afraid we will never know what my grandmother was thinking at that moment. Sometimes that is the beauty of photography though. The mystery of never having all the answers to a photo is often what makes us look at and remember a photo for much longer.
Thank you sharing. I very much enjoyed reading your article and seeing these old photos scanned. Feels so much like going back to that time. I am also looking forward to the next article and photos.
Wonderful Marc, yes, the old fibre prints are of such quality and longevity. The studio portrait is amazing. It’s funny, somebody told me never to delete, as seemingly naff shots can become amazing over time. I find it with old contact sheets – photos I would never have chosen 30 years ago are interesting now because of things in the photo that denote the era the photo was taken in.
I’ve spent a few years now (on and off) archiving mine and my family’s old photos to go in my updated Red Eye book (at some point), and I wrote about them as: Frozen moments I found could thaw in a flash at my glance, returning my mind briefly to a life I no longer lived in — a past from which I was physically barred. The older I become, the more I cherish this journey through time, especially with family and friends who no longer exist in this realm. (I don’t live in the past — but I do like to visit now and again.)
I’ll look forward to seeing the next selection…
Thank you Martin for your positive input, feedback, and encouragement. Much appreciated.