Years ago in a cafe, my young son and I were sitting near two women who were having a heated discussion. Eventually one leaned over to me and asked if I carried a photo of my son with me. As it happened, I did have a picture of him. The woman looked at her friend triumphantly and said “see, everyone does.”
Aside from the obvious problem of generalizing from a sample of one, my possession of an image on that day was a consequence of my son having just had an particularly flattering passport photo taken. In fact, I didn’t normally carry his picture — I had never thought to cut one up small enough to fit in my wallet.
But it got me thinking about the abundance of photos I DID possess of my son — and how normal is seems for parents to turn the camera lens on their offspring.
These days, with smart phones and social media, it’s only a matter of personal taste how quickly after (or during) birth, photos of our children can be spread around the globe. Seventeen years ago, when the boy-child came into the world, the Big T did have his camera at the birth, and we have several slightly out of focus shots of me in the delivery suite holding our newborn. But in those pre-digital, pre-FaceBook days, the photos were taken on film, and weren’t available for anyone to see until all 24 shots on the roll of film had been exposed and developed. As both sets of grandparents lived in other countries, it would have been at least a week or more until they saw images of their new grandchild.
A generation earlier, when the boy-child’s grandparents were becoming parents, the processes of capturing and sharing images of their children would have taken even longer. For a start, although both my father and father in law were keen photographers, neither were present at the births of their children. The earliest photos of me that I’m aware of were taken at my christening.
Go back another generation, and camera ownership was less widespread. We are fortunate to have photos of both my parents as children, and of the Big T’s mother, but we have none of his father.
Although the Box Brownie (1) was first released in 1900 — revolutionizing photography by making it affordable to ordinary people — amateur photos don’t appear before the 1920s in either the Big T’s or my family (2), making our parents’ generation the first whose childhood was captured by enthusiastic family members, rather than professional photographers.
By contrast, I have a collection of studio portraits of my grandmother Margaret Cruden, and her younger brother Stewart, as small children.
I’m not sure why there are so many portraits of my grandmother. She and her brother Stewart were the eldest children of Alexander Cruden and Catherine Black. On my grandmother’s birth certificate, her father’s occupation is shown as coal miner, and it’s unlikely the family was particularly wealthy. However, my great grandparents (or possibly their parents) took the children to several different studios for sittings during their early childhood.
While I love these glimpses into the childhoods of my grandmother and great uncle, the last image saddens me, as all photographs of little boys dressed up as soldiers sadden me. The photo was taken probably during World War I, and I wonder if my great grandfather had already signed up. My great uncle has such a sad, slightly lost expression on his face.
(1) ‘The Most Important Cardboard Box Ever.’ BBC Magazine 5 January 2015 http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30530268
(2) With the possible exception of the Dove family, of whom we have a few images thought to be c. 1913-16.