“Fleeting” seems an entirely appropriate term for the photo above. I believe that it was taken on Kirkcaldy High Street – although I don’t know when. It was probably taken by a professional street photographer as the original has a number on the back, but there is no studio name or other identifying mark.
I have three such photos; this one, another of my paternal grandmother and the third of my 2 x great grandmother (Alexander Cruden’s mother) with her younger son Stewart. I think I’ve also seen one of my mother as a young teenager, but I’m not totally sure about this.
By its nature, all photography is fleeting; capturing only a fraction of a second out of a whole lifetime. But while an image is fleeting, its context may not be. The relationship between photographer and subject can be transitory – or incredibly complex. At one end of the continuum is street photography – where the subject is unknown to the photographer and the relationship between them lasts the duration of the shot, plus the time it takes to effect any transaction that might take place if those shots are printed “on spec” in the hope that subjects will buy the print (a phenomenon these days confined to tourist attractions, graduation ceremonies and school balls).
But as private camera ownership has grown – to the extent that millions of us have mobile phones with built-in cameras that allow us to capture images of those around us at any time – the relationship between photographer and subject becomes more complex.
As children, my parents only had pictures taken if the family went to a professional photographic studio, happened to be captured by a street photographer, or if an older sibling or cousin saved up for a Box Brownie.
In his youth my father was an enthusiastic photographer. This meant that when he first became a father – to me – he took lots of pictures, and my babyhood is recorded in large numbers of prints and 35mm slides. By the time my youngest brother came along, although photography had become cheaper, my father had lost his enthusiasm, and subsequently there are fewer photos of Derek as a child.
My own son has been photographed thousands of times by doting parents and grandparents. The earliest images are of a tiny wrinkled bundle barely an hour old. Pictures of his first days, weeks and months of life fill several albums and boxes. These days, I snap him in airport lounges and cafes – pretty much the only times we’re together with nothing better to do than play with our phones.
Whatever the setting or timing of the photos I take of my child, they are always informed by the incredibly powerful, complex relationship I have with him. I want to capture him in ways he’ll be happy to see – especially as so many photos end up on my blogs or other social media and I’m not the kind of parent who’s saving embarrassing shots for his 21st birthday or to show girlfriends. I guess often I also want to create and share images that I think are beautiful and that do justice to how amazingly gorgeous I believe him to be.
What that means of course, is that there is a form of censorship at work when I photograph my child. It springs from a mother’s love and dictates that even the most candid, apparently fleeting image carries with it a story that is enduring; a story of love and belonging and connection.
My mum and dad are of a generation that did not live together before – or instead of – marriage. They met, got engaged, saved for a wedding and for the things they’d need for a home together while both were living at home with their parents.
Hours after this photo was taken, they spent their first night together. I think my mum said they had their honeymoon in Stirling, but I realise I don’t actually know. For me, growing up in a much more permissive generation, this bit of information has never been important.
My parents were married for 27 years. They raised three kids and grieved for a fourth who was stillborn. They emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand and spent most of their married life away from the support – and perhaps interference – of their families.
Mum and Dad divorced in 1984, and my dad’s been married to his second wife for almost as long as he was to my mum.
When I was growing up, I can remember a white album of photos of my parents’ wedding; each page separated by crisp film-like paper. I don’t remember all the photos, but I know there was definitely one of my mum with her father and another of my parents cutting their wedding cake. The album has gone; my mum said she took the photos out and threw the book away during one of her house moves.
While I am grateful to have this photo; it also makes me sad. My parents – who are the “star attraction” of the day – are farthest away from the camera. My dad looks happy in a slightly punch-drunk kind of way, but my mother’s expression is unreadable. My grandfather, David Leslie, in the immediate foreground seems to share my mum’s expression, and in fact the only people who look like they are having fun are my mum’s mother, Margaret Ramsay (nee Cruden) and my dad’s brother (also called David Leslie). My aunt Sandra, at the far end of the table looks like she’s realised she’s missing out on something.
The only other photo that seems to have survived of that wedding is this one:
My grandad Ramsay, on the left, looks happy – although you can’t really see his face. He had five daughters and my mum was the fourth he’d walked down the aisle. Next to him is my great aunt Bessie. She was my paternal grandmother’s younger sister, and, being a widow, seemed to accompany my similarly widowed grandfather David Leslie to family events. Closest to the camera, and looking like they were enjoying themselves are my great grandparents – my mum’s mother’s parents. Alexander and Katherine (nee Black) – whom I’ve written about before – were married for sixty two years, until my great grandad’s death. Knowing that my ancestors all seemed to have large families, and also tended to stay in the same area all their lives, I can’t imagine how many weddings my great grandparents had been to by the time Mum got married. Perhaps, more than anyone else, they’d got the hang of it!
Susan Elder was my paternal grandmother, and the woman after whom I am named.
She died on March 11 1950, aged only 50 – almost 12 years before I was born.
I know very little about my dad’s mum. He was only 17 when she died and I’ve never really asked him much about her, possibly because I’m not as close to him as I am to my mother, but also because I think I’ve always felt his sadness at her loss and I haven’t known how to ask.
I’ve always known I was named for her and until my mum gave me the photo above, the only picture I’d ever seen of my grandmother is this one, taken probably around 1914-15.
I’ love this photo. I love the tranquility and hopefulness of the three young faces. I know my great-grandmother had been a school teacher before she married, and I wonder if the book my grandmother is holding is somehow symbolic of the family’s love of learning – or perhaps a way of conveying gentility upon the children of a family whose father was “in trade.”
My grandmother was 22 when she married my grandfather in June 1923. On their marriage certificate, his occupation is given as “blacksmith” – she apparently had none. In researching my family history, I’ve found very few female ancestors who did not have jobs at the time of their marriage, so I guess Susan’s family were sufficiently wealthy that she did not have to work in the mills and factories of Kirkcaldy.
My grandmother’s married life was not materially easy. She raised two sons in a tiny terrace house with an outside toilet, shared with three other families. Was she happy? I don’t know. I’ve spoken to an aunt and to one of my father’s cousins who remember her fondly, but I really don’t know what her life was like. I hope that when the photographer caught that image of a stern-looking woman with her head turned away from the camera that he was only capturing that moment – and that the beautiful, hopeful teenager of the second photo found happiness in her relatively short life.