With the advent of digital photography, the notion of remembering when a photograph was captured has lost its sense of necessity. The need to notate when a photo was taken has all passed away now that digital photo files are embedded with metadata directly from digital cameras. Nowadays, date, time, and even GPS location data is automatically recorded for you, thus extinguishing the need to keep track of, or even one day wonder when and where an image was captured.
But there is an aspect of the age of a photo that has been lost during this transition into the era of digital imaging. That is the disappearance of physically printed photographs, which becomes more prevalent as time goes on now that most pictures are no longer even printed at all. At one time, the excellence of a photograph was determined by its print quality. Now it has more to do with the quality of the screen it is being viewed on.
However, when you are seeing an old printed photo that is nearing 100 years in age, there is a tangible feeling and sense of time gone by that can’t be denied or replicated in the same way as when you are viewing, on a digital monitor, an image that has not been altered by time. It could even be described as a rare gift to be able to hold, in your hands, a single moment frozen in time, which occurred nearly a century ago.
The above photo that you see in this post is partially surrounded within what remains of a cardboard paper matte frame that is equally as old as the photo itself. The photograph was given to me by my father and is a picture of his grandparents that was taken during his parents’ wedding in 1932 – now the oldest printed photograph I possess.
These great grandparents of mine, who I sadly never had the pleasure of meeting, were key to my family’s history as European immigrants who arrived in the late eighteen hundreds on Ellis Island in New York City with hopes of a better life in America.
Somehow, the condition of this image, together with its partially missing mount, adds to the antique feel and overall atmosphere of a precious moment in time. Other subtle elements like the archival silver-gelatin-like paper it was printed on, and how the photo paper has aged and become deeply discolored over time, also play a role in the feeling you get when you submit yourself to viewing an imperfect picture from a somewhat ancient past.
Many of these elements of film and printed photographs are now becoming lost with newer photos captured during the digital photo revolution of the last 20 years. A picture shot today with a digital camera will not physically age at all over the next hundred years as their analog counterparts did in the past. Somehow that just doesn’t seem quite natural to me.
And because the storage of digital images has become nearly effortless, and is no longer affected by hard disk space limitations, I have come to appreciate the added effort it took to care for and preserve a printed photo like this during its passage through three generations on its way to me.
By scanning old printed photographs via computer as I have done, for viewing on high resolution screens, one is able to enlarge their physical size as well.
Scanning can allow one to better see the finer details within such photos like this, as well as to add to the enjoyment and nostalgia one gains by being able to easily share them digitally with others over vast distances.
Around three years ago, I posted a two part story on this site talking about the beauty of scanning and enjoying your old family photos, especially ones that may be rather small in physical printed size to begin with.
In those two posts I showed a series of old photos I scanned, which had been taken of my grandfather throughout his adult life. The two people seen in the 86 year old photo above are my grandfather’s parents. If you missed seeing the old photos of my grandfather in that other two-part post entitled “Fleeting Photo Moments”, then you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
By the way, how old is the oldest printed photo that you have and what is the picture of?
Marc, I don’t – never did – own it. But as a young man, I was asked by my employer if I could reproduce copies of one he had, so that he could give six other members of his family a copy of it, as a Christmas present.
It was the first (oldest) family portrait they had ever had, and he had the only copy of it ever made. It was an original Daguerreotype, dating from somewhere around 1845 (I can’t remember the exact date, now, some 50 years later, but it was marked on the cardboard mount to which the photo was attached).
It was a fascinating ask. I set to work in my darkroom, trying to conjure up six copies as close to the original as possible. Sepia toning was essential, but which? – what paper to use? – can I include some stain marks, like the faint yellow patches that appeared on the original, after over a century? – and what about the cardboard mount? – that needs ageing too, on all six copies, and the edges have suffered over the years, so they have to be carefully rasped down.
I did the best I could – it wasn’t perfect – these things never are, even if you’re a master forger (that’s how they get caught eventually). But given the time frame I had to work in, I must admit I was pretty satisfied with the end result. And the family was absolutely delighted.
Old photos weren’t exactly a novelty for me – two of my ancestors were pioneer photographers, back in the 19th century, and left an incredible legacy of large prints and collodion wet plates behind. But the Daguerreotype remains a unique experience.
Very nice story and experience Pete. Thank you for sharing.