Tag Archives: society

The Changing Social History of the Photograph

I’m sure we’ve all heard it all before. This generation will be the lost generation, because so many of its photographs are treated differently, shared instantly through avenues such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, email, text message, Pinterest (and other avenues I can’t even name, let alone use) – and, if printed at all, are often printed on budget paper with cheap ink. A generation or two from now, who will be able to find grandma’s university graduation photos or aunty’s first birthday party pictures? Should we be thinking about these things?

Recently I’ve been finding myself thinking about the social history shown in collections of photographs. I’ve been trawling through the well-organised photo album collection of one of my aunts, ostensibly to locate photos of some of the family who celebrate ‘0’ birthdays this year, but finding myself thinking about everything in the background instead. With little money and plenty of ingenuity and inventiveness, the legends on the back of Christmas photos show how proud my grandfather was of his young family, and their joy and happiness is evident in their grins as they pose with their trinket shelves and books and tea sets on a sunny Christmas morning. 

Brothers and sisters pose alongside the birthday girl, with a homemade cake in pride of place on a small stool. The whole family lines up along the back of the house, dressed in school uniform, clutching suitcases and schoolbooks. An older sibling comes home from university, and the whole family gets together for a photo. A younger sibling marries, and there’s a photo of each older sibling’s family group with the bride or groom. The passport sized school photograph is distributed among the family, captured forever in the family album. Baby’s first photos are printed multiple times, mailed out to everyone in the family, preserved in albums with the appropriate age handwritten on the back.

When it came to my generation, there are photos of my brothers and me on the first day of school, or blowing out birthday candles, or dressed in cub or scout or guide uniforms. An anniversary means an endless parade of family group photos, each of them getting larger as the years go by. The weddings of my generation include the siblings (my aunts and uncles), or the mixture of cousins who attended.

And then, once we get to the age of the digital cameras, the collections I have access to both grow and shrink. In five years I think we have managed two photos with my siblings and I, one of them less than a month ago. In ten years – well, you might be able to add a couple more. 

Even the background of the photos tells you something. Fashions, in clothing, in food, in cars, in toys, even in advertisements, and road signs, and shop names and sign writing. The wedding or birthday cakes, the candles, the gifts, the buffet menu. The size of the photo, and the shape – whether square or oblong, or rounded corners. 3.5 by 5 inches, or 4 x 6. Even the fading of the colours and the albums they’re so proudly mounted in – all of it tells a story about a place and a time and a way of life.

Why did we stop posing as family groups, and move towards a parade of selfies and candid photos, and group shots with hidden faces and bunny ear fingers? Do we think we’re now invincible, or so completely documented that another photo isn’t necessary? I might remember the family weekend at the beach – but will my niece and nephew? Do we spend too much time in the here and now to look at and learn from our past, or provide a record for our future? Or do we simply not take the time to celebrate who we are and what we’re doing, moving on to the next big thing?

In fifty years, in a hundred years, what evidence will there be of our existence?

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Ratesjul is an avid reader (of almost anything) and keen amateur (emphasis on the amateur) photographer. She loves looking through collections of family photos and hearing family stories – and is in awe of her aunt’s collection of photo albums.

 

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