In 1988, while moonlighting from my day job at the BBC, I produced a film for the BFI. On the list of dressing props was a set of old family photographs, so in the haphazard way of these things I was overjoyed to find a shop in Langside where on the counter was a box labelled ‘Instant Ancestors’ containing a stack of snapshots dating from the 1910s to the 60s, evidently the spoils of house clearances.
I’ve always found something sad about old photographs, and old photographs of strangers are especially poignant, in the same way the shelves of charity shops tug at my heart when casting an eye over china tea sets and porcelain figurines, sensing that their once-proud owners in all likelihood have passed on, their houses emptied and possessions scattered.
For the last six months I’ve scanned around 2000 negatives and photographs belonging to Erica and her mother, Vera. Most of these, almost exclusively black and white, are the common-or-garden variety: family snapshots, baby photos and landscapes shot in numerous locations in Europe and what remained of Britain’s colonial outposts in the 1950s. The earliest was taken in 1909, a studio portrait of an infant Vera, not yet one-year-old, while the most recent date from the 1980s, pictures of my husband, Owen and his younger sibling, Dan, in their late teens and early twenties.
Many words have been devoted to photography, some enlightening, some bogus, about its place in the culture and the interpretations placed on it. Personally I’ve always liked the ubiquity of photography that since its inception was embraced by all classes, be it in a studio setting or a casual snapshot. My paternal grandmother, not exactly flush, insisted on family portraits shot professionally – something I never experienced. The closest I ever came to a ‘proper’ portrait was a photo taken on the beach at Ayr, aged only 2 and flanked by my parents, one of the few pictures I have of my childhood.
Scanning Erica and Vera’s photos, several stand out: a sloth in a wooden crate, Vera holding a pygmy marmoset in her palm and a studio portrait of Erica’s father-in-law, Edwin Thomas, in eighteenth century frills and bob wig. Among the most impressive is a set of negatives, folded carefully in ‘Bronco’ brand toilet paper, taken by Erica’s husband, Gwynne, while stationed at Halley Bay in the Antarctic (1957-59) as part of the British Polar Expedition.
Of all the photographs scanned, Vera’s are the more composed and evocative. The best date from the mid-1930s, taken during her travels to Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Romania. During a series of interviews I recorded with her in the late 90’s she admitted how her pictures were retouched by the Kleinberger Studio, Budapest and were later exhibited in Derby during WW2, the place she settled with her family after their flight from Hungary in 1938. So I’m glad to have on my walls a set of prints that otherwise would languish in albums or in drawers.
Recently I checked my personal files of photos – over 10,000 digital images. There are also several thousand negatives taken over the past 40 years, shot on various film stocks, some as ‘serious’ art school projects, others as personal snaps. Already they’re acquiring the patina of age, of the past, prompting the thought – will today’s photographs, shot on mobile phones and tablets look quite as resonant in 80 years time?
The photograph shows Erica’s mother, Vera Eisner, shot probably in British Guiana in the mid-1950s.