Pictures of youth

The boy-child, aged 8. Cambridge, England, 2006.

The boy-child, aged 8. Cambridge, England, 2006. Photo: Tony Gray

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.

Thomas Alexander Gray, one day old.

The big T with our boy-child; the morning after his birth. Photo: Su Leslie, 1998.

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.

su in christening gown mod

Christening, November 1961. Photo: Ron Leslie, Leslie family archive.

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.

Joy Dove (the Big T's mother), her sister Dorothy and friend. Brighton Beach  Photo: Gray Dove family archive.

Joy Dove (the Big T’s mother), her sister Dorothy and friend. Brighton Beach, Christchurch, NZ, c. 1943 or 1944. Photo: Dove Gray family archive.

Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden) and daughters at the beach, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. c 1941. Photo: Leslie Ramsay archive.

Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden) and daughters at the beach, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. c 1941. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

20140615-222011-80411435.jpg

Fragment of a photo: Ron and David Leslie. Beach on Fife coast, Scotland. c. 1934-36 Photo: Leslie family archive.

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.

James and George Cruden (back row), with their niece and nephew; David and May Ramsay. Photo probably take in Dysart, Scotland, c. early 1930s. From Ramsay family archive.

Little rascals? James and George Cruden (back row), with their niece and nephew; David and May Ramsay. c. early 1930s. Milton of Balgonie, Fife, Scotland, . Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

By contrast, I have a collection of studio portraits of my grandmother Margaret Cruden, and her younger brother Stewart, as small children.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1911. Studio portrait, probably Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1911. Studio portrait, probably Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

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.

Margaret and Stewart Cruden, c. 1910. Studio portrait probably taken in Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Margaret and Stewart Cruden, c. 1910. Studio portrait probably taken in Fife, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1914. Studio portrait, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart and Margaret Cruden, c. 1915. Studio portrait, R. Milliken, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart Cameron Cruden, c. 1914. Studio portrait, Colin Campbell Studio, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

Stewart Cameron Cruden, c. 1914-15. Studio portrait, Colin Campbell Studio, Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Photo: Ramsay Leslie family archive.

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.

This post was written for Ailsa’s weekly photo theme at Where’s my Backpack. You can see more here.

 

(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.

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29 thoughts on “Pictures of youth

    • Hi Tish. Thank you; I was very conscious of having posted some of these before, but I do love them, and I guess meaning comes from grouping and text as well as the actual image, so hopefully their changed context gives them new significance. I keep looking at the earliest photo of my gran and thinking that she never lost that cheeky, knowing look.

      • I really don’t think it matters about repeat showings. In fact it’s good to see interesting things more than once, and as you say, context is everything. I certainly repost my photos and my words. Blogging is so ephemeral anyway. And that’s another reason to repeat stuff, albeit with a bit of refreshing. There are always new viewers coming along.

  1. The photos just show how much our society has changed and how modern technology allows us to capture intimate moments in children’s lives. No way would you see a studio portrait of a child eating their first chocolate frog or playing house in a cardboard box!

    • True; and I treasure the candid images of my son. But I also feel a bit overwhelmed at the sheer number. I’m thinking that we should sit down as a family and cull some of the lower quality, duplicate images so that we have a decent archive of his childhood for the future instead of so many boxes of 6×4’s and files on our computers that eventually the temptation will be to throw them all away rather than deal with the sheer volume.

      • I know exactly what you mean, I have multiple versions of photos on my computer and intend to cull them but haven’t so far. At least my digital photos are organised in folders so I don’t have to troll trough the dross to find ones I want. Photobooks might be a good idea for your son’s photos, they’re great to look through and you can add little gems about him in it too.

  2. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again … you are so lucky to be sitting on such a treasure trove of photos from the past!!
    Today it seems every mindless moment is captured and shared around the world compared to the rare glimpses most of us have into the past of our loved ones. Great post!

    • Thanks; I do feel very lucky, particularly to have all the photos of my grandmother. She was very special to me. And I agree; we seem to be bombarded with poor quality “instant” images — which will disappear into the electronic ether in time. Not sure if that is a blessing or not, but it is a worry that few images are printed and saved for the future. 🙂

  3. A lovely post. I have some old photos, not of children in their youth, rather the children of the original couple in my family that settled down in the South Island in the mid 1800’s. They are so formal. But we did get a diary of what life was really like for those children and where they ended up

  4. Su, I love seeing all these old photos. The ones of in Scottish dress are especially cute. We have quite a few of my grandparents and even great-grandparents, not necessarily in any order, but lots of them, which I love. My family went on lots of vacations and my parents took mostly slides, which was great then, but now when I’d like to have them transferred to discs, could get rather expensive. But there are so many good memories there, that it will probably have to happen.

    janet

    • My father took mainly slides too. We had some printed years ago, but I don’t know what’s happened to the rest. I used to love the slide shows when I was a kid. Sunday nights, after dinner, we’d all sit in the living room and my mum and dad would argue (quite good-naturedly) about when photos were taken, or where they were. It was brilliant! 🙂

  5. What a wonderful post and a great theme. I love how you traced back from today’s tendency to capture every breath to the days when there were no photographs or few of children. And these are beautiful photographs. Your son was, and I am sure still is, adorable!

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