When a friend told me about the web site Dear Photograph, it was one of those moments (I have more than I care to admit) where someone else’s idea is so great it kind of pisses me off. If it sounds like jealousy, that’s because it is. The concept works like this: people take old snapshots, return to the location where they were taken, hold it up in the same orientation as the original, take a photo of the photo, and then write something about it. A pure, simple, ingenius idea.
And it’s an idea that I really want to be a part of. I’m lucky enough to have some meaningful old photographs, and to know the locations where they were taken, so I decided to give it a try.
I selected two favorite snapshots and headed into Arlington, Virginia with my camera and a plan. I know my way around a camera, and am generally what you’d call a creative person. I anticipated things would go like this — find the spot, hold the picture up, walk around till everything lines up just right, take a picture, repeat for the second picture, call it a day.
Not so fast, mister.
The first photo is one of my very favorites of my Dad. He is standing in front of his first car, a 1941 Ford, in front of his childhood home. He is cool. Like, James Dean cool. I found the spot, parked, and within a minute had oriented myself within a foot or two of the spot where the photo was taken. I could fairly easily line it up with my eye. But once I stuck a camera between my eye and the photo, it became much, much more challenging. Camera lenses don’t see the same way the human eye sees, particularly longer lenses than came standard in an old Instamatic or whatever it was. While I could find the right position, I found it almost impossible to line up the scale of the features in the photo. I moved back and forth, holding the photo closer, then farther. On the occasions I felt like things were lined up, the camera was too close to the print to focus.
I wanted to shake the hand of the person who submitted this perfectly aligned example a few days earlier.
In the end, I did the best I could and am generally happy with it. But I was humbled.
Next came the shot from the front of the house that I called home from the day I was born until I graduated from college. In the photo, my Mother poses in late ’60s apparel and posture, looking less like the nurse she was, and more like a flight attendant. My sister and I flank her in our finest duds.
At the time each of the photos were taken, and for many years after, life was generally good for the subjects. But my family is no different than anyone else’s. Anything that ends probably doesn’t end ideally. My parents, both gone now, were dealt cruel hands along the way. My father died of cancer at 42. My mother lived a longer life but was stricken with, among other ailments, Alzheimer’s. These happy moments captured on film, taken of young people with their whole lives ahead of them, seem sad to me. The contrast of past and present sharpened the realization of how much they missed.
So now that I’ve taken the photos, I’m in no hurry to share them on the Dear Photograph site. I may eventually, but for now I feel like holding them a little close, and just sharing them with my friends. If I do submit them, I’ll update this post with links. But for now, thanks for reading my thoughts here. And if any of you decide to look through your old photo albums and try the same exercise, I’d love to hear from you about your experiences.