Unidentified Family Photos

BY Chris Niedenthal

It is so fascinating to look through old family photos and photo albums, and see how we and those before us once looked. Such photographs show fashion, hairstyles and many other interesting details

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Journalist Ewa Winnicka’s new book LondyńczycyLondoners, about Polish wartime emigres in London, starts with a compelling scene: somebody finds a box of old photographs next to a garbage container in a London suburb. They look old because they are old – from the 50s and 60s, couples at a ball, first holy communion, and so on. Somebody decides to try and decipher and perhaps identify the people in these photographs, to see who, what, where, and when. And the story goes on from there.

Nothing remarkable, of course, as we often have the same problem trying to figure out who is who on our own, historical family photographs. There’s Dad there on the left, oooh, he’s so gallant, there is Ciocia Jadzia next to him staring at the wall, but who on earth is that gaunt-looking young man in the middle? Nooooo, it can’t possibly be Kazik... And that’s just a photo taken twenty years ago or so. A photo taken 50, 60, or even 80 years ago might give us the giggles, but we will be hard-pressed to identify the funny-looking people in the print. Why? Because nobody bothered to write any details on the back of it.

Very rarely, if ever, do we find any life-saving words on the back of a family photograph. „Mum, Dad, Auntie Mary, Uncle George, Jurata, July 1959”. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the relevant information could be found in that one, valuable sentence? Usually, we draw a blank because the back of the photo is blank – not a word there, no place name, date or anything that can help us. Of course such a photo doesn’t go in the family album, it gets thrown into the shoe box with all the other UFPh’s. That’s Unidentified Family Photo for short. The scourge of family life!

What to do?

To tell you the truth, if I knew, I would be a rich man. Putting things in order is one of the hardest things for mankind. Putting a man on the moon is nothing compared to trying to get your family photos in order.

Before I go any further though, I must make it clear that I am writing here about old-style photography, meaning film negatives and prints. Digital photography makes things theoretically easier, but I’ll get back to that later. So... negatives and prints. In days gone by, we gave our rolls of negatives to a photolab or drugstore, and collected them later, developed and with prints made from every halfway decent negative. All this came in a neat little envelope with the negatives on one side and the prints on the other. And this, dear reader, was the most important moment: the moment when we would – or would not if you didn’t do it – forever know the who, the what and the where, not to mention the when. Coming home with that little package we should have dropped everything we were doing, sat down and written those magic words on the back of each and every print. It had to be done straightaway. Not 2 hours later, not a day or two later. Right then. Or forever hold your peace, if that’s what the saying is.

The next step would – or should – have been to put everything, or at least the chosen photographs, into a photo album. I would suggest not sticking down the prints with glue, as this way the captions on the back would be lost, or at least would be lost until someone ripped out the photo. No, the best albums are the simplest, white or black pages neatly bound. The best way of mounting the prints is also the old-fashioned way – sliding the four corners of the print into little paper triangles that are stuck on the page. Sure, this opens the way for future generations to easily take out the pictures and lose them (some call this censorship!), but it is still the neatest method. Beware of those albums with plastic sheets that cover and hold down the prints under them, but after many years turn yellowish and one has to struggle to peel them away. You can now write the photo captions onto the paper surrounding the prints, so the photos are easy to look at and the text easy to read.

The trouble is, of course, the time factor. For one, to do all this takes time. Secondly, you usually think you’ll do this “later on”, that you’ll find the time, with the result that either you’ll never do it, or you will, except that you might have forgotten all the relevant details. I always think I’ll remember all the details forever. Not so: a year later you will be struggling with your memory, and 5, 10 years later it’s all gone – you don’t remember a thing. If you kick the bucket in the meantime, your offspring will know even less – and their offspring will know next to nothing.

And yet it is so fascinating to look through old family photos and photo albums, and see how we and those before us once looked. Such photographs show fashion, hairstyles and many other interesting details. I’m sure families love looking at old photographs of their forefathers, friends and other relations.

Apart from the prints themselves, please don’t forget about the negatives, as it is always a shame to get rid of them. Treat them well, as a scratched and fingerprinted negative is a pain to restore. Place them in special paper or plastic sleeves. A whole roll on each sheet, and then put them in loose-leaf binders specially made for negatives (they have to be slightly wider than standard binders). Write the date and details on the sleeves, and then you at least have a semblance of an archive.

With the advent of digital photography, all these suggestions are rather useless. Everything is hidden somewhere in the fuzzy depths of a hard drive, or on a CD disc. With digital cameras, we have to overcome the temptation to overshoot. Overshooting is the cardinal sin in this case – to the extent that we will find it extremely difficult to edit our work. There is just so much of it. The result is that we just leave it all in the computer, can never decide which photos to make prints of, and that’s the end of it. Nobody ever sees any of our work. Sure, you can e-mail a few shots to Auntie Mary etc., but she is never going to make prints of them, and so trillions of family photos are left in computers all over the world and are never seen or heard of again. To make mattters worse, nobody is ever going to see any of those photos in, say, a hundred years from now. And even if they manage to crack open an ancient computer, they won’t have the energy to look through thousands of uncaptioned photos. All those wonderful photos left to themselves – and how many of us bother to print them up? In this case, old style analogue photography was far superior: virtually everything we shot was printed up and can be seen by everyone now and hopefully too, by those who follow us as well. So up until the 1990s family albums existed in paper form. Ever since the advent of digital photography for the masses, there is going to be a serious void in family photographs. An interesting paradox in fact: we shoot far more photographs, and see far less of them.

Surely we all cherish old photographs of our loved ones. Just think of all the photos taken just before, and during World War Two, of our fathers, grandfathers, sons, daughters, wives, sisters. Many of the people depicted on such photographs never returned home, or just disappeared... Any such photograph then, is the memory of a loved one. And that, in its simplest form, is what a photograph is: a memory. That is why we should always put a name and a date (at least) on every single photograph we take. Our mental memory may be good – though short, as the saying goes, but our memory of loved ones is forever. Making notes then, is a way of keeping memories alive – and the number of Unidentified Family Photos down.

Beside the Point

This is a photograph one rarely, if ever, sees of the Berlin Wall coming down in November 1989. All of a sudden, thousands of East Berliners could stream across the Wall into West Berlin, the forbidden city of their dreams. And where did these East Berliners go? What was the first thing they did on entering the city of sin and debauchery (as their propaganda had probably called the inaccessible city)? Why, they went of course to the nearest sex shop/striptease parlour. Nothing like that had existed in their half of the city. Wandering the streets of West Berlin shortly after the Wall was breached, I came across this line of young East Berliners eager to partake in a little bit of sinning. And who can blame them?!