What is Your Parents' Best Photo?

What is Your Parents' Best Photo?

There are many things in life you have a choice over, but your parents are not one of them! You are born and — to a greater or lesser extent — bred, shaping the person you are today. So have you looked at their photographs?

Everyone seems to be obsessed with family trees — knowing where they have come from says something about them and their family today. It's a natural curiosity and one that has led me to investigate historic censuses, along with birth, marriage, and death certificates, leading me to an 1800s Methodist community in staunchly Catholic Ireland. It stirs powerful and emotive feelings because it can help us to understand what has shaped our family today and how we became the person we are.

Researching family trees naturally leads to our ancestors and so photos of them. The image below is of my paternal grandmother Sybil, taken in 1922 somewhere in London's Hyde Park when she was 20 years old (the Smiths were sticklers for recording person, place, and date!). Given she was married in 1927, the photographer is unknown.

This is one of a smattering of images that pre-date my father's own photographs. He'd always been a keen photographer, a result of his late 1940s high school having a darkroom and Leica (possibly a Leica III). However it wasn't until his death that I inherited the large pile of loose photos that had lain undisturbed in an old box, slowly gathering dust. These photos then sat in the corner of my kitchen until recently, when I began the process of scanning some 600 prints of varying sizes.

What I discovered was a record of teenage self-discovery, with the camera the tool of choice. I've found the traces of a young man who was trying to make a record. trying to understand, the world around him, whilst experimenting with the technical vagaries of the photographic process that must have involved exposure, film stock, development, lighting, and printing. The number of photos remaining are limited, and whilst they detail who is in them, there is no further technical information. From this point onwards his archive shows how he developed in to an accomplished photographer who, in the 1950s post-war period of European rebuilding, showed where he went and what he did.

I'm proud of the images my father produced, however I know that that view is tinged with a degree of sentimentality. I've already talked about what makes a great photo, and with the distance of time, these images are already of immense interest just because of their age. As the older photos segue in to family images, they cease to be objects in and of themselves, morphing in to pseudo-memories where I impose an understanding of my family on to the events depicted.

Appreciating a photo graphically — its message — is very different from overlaying personal biases and in this sense I enjoy his earlier photos better. As a technical photographer myself, I also possibly better appreciate the hurdles required to accomplish the end results. Or maybe as we age as photographers, we run the risk of becoming lazy, becoming stale, losing our voice to visually describe and detail what we are seeing. So maybe he became lazy as time went on. That said, do we equate family photos with a lack of visual dynamism? Is it a subject area that we subconsciously value less as art?

Looking at my father's archive, I realized that I was critiquing the earlier photos for their aesthetic, whilst viewing the later photos as family objects. The boy who became a man was a distant photographer I didn't know, whilst the father I remembered fondly always had a camera to record family events. I needed to throw away my personal connections and view the work as a whole, appreciating it as a single body.

I've picked my favorite photos below which show the range of his work, but are all pre-family. There are images from is time in the Royal Air Force, portraits, travel images, and friends.

Strangely then, the photo I like best is of the silhouetted arches (below) which was taken on a family holiday. In a sense it is cliched, however rather than representing a metaphorical view on to the outside world — separating the viewer from the viewed — I think it does the opposite. The arches are representative of interconnectedness, of a world of parts, making us aware that what we are looking at is simply one facet of a bigger whole. It makes the image more expansive, rather than constrictive. I like it because it could be one of any hundred medieval cities, yet it shows us that there is one world, one whole.

What started out as a process of cataloguing photos that lay half-forgotten in the corner, turned into a journey of self-discovery. Discovery of who I am as a result of where my father came from, sharing his experiences through the eye of his camera. Discovery of who my father was through an understanding of what he photographed, why, and how. And discovery of the photographer I never really knew, appreciating his photos within the context of photography rather than family.

It's also a reminder of the cycles of photography that many pass through. If you are a professional then you make and take photos as part of the job — you never really stop. However you can still fall in and out of love with photography — as art — and that is where personal projects play a part in reviving creativity and re-inspiring us during slumps. As amateurs, the modus operandi is different. There is no financial or career imperative, you take photos because you want to, because you like doing it. I think my father was drawn to photography from an interest in the technical requirements, gear acquisition syndrome, the excitement of a new career and travel, and the orderliness that you can impose on the world when making an image. Whilst he never stopped photographing, I don't see the fresh creative joy that inspired his earlier work.

Perhaps my single biggest takeaway then is to stay in love, stay inspired, stay joyous in your work. So start the new year, planning how you might achieve this. However the best place to start is with your parents' photos — what is your favorite and why?

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26 Comments

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thank you for the heartwarming article.

My own father not only was the first to teach me the basics of photography, he also passed along his love of photography to me. And yes, I also have lots of old prints to scan.
Do them all, maybe you can have a nice book of his photographs printed.

Mike Smith's picture

A photobook is a great idea.... Now they are scanned that will be an enjoyable rea task. Thanks for the suggestion

Dan Seefeldt's picture

My cousin is doing a hunting photo book of our grandpa. You could make it topical for organization purposes.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

I'm glad the book suggestion was helpful. Your story has led me to expand my plans for a book of photos of the last few years of my father's life. I was planning to use the various (digital) images my sister and I took then. I can see now that a more complete look at his life HAS to include the pictures he had taken himself. A book should be more accessible and valuable to my daughter as well. She's less likely to want to archive and fuss with lots of old prints but may cherish a book or two.

Mike Smith's picture

That's a nice idea to mix photos asa piece of family history and as a memory. There definitely more to this topic... With a revisit I think

Dan Seefeldt's picture

This was a fun read. I have photos dating back to before 1900 of some family members. Between both sides of the family I might have near 10,000 photos and slides. These are really nice to have since only one grandparent was alive when I was born.

Mike Smith's picture

A great archive to have!

Rod Kestel's picture

The thing about growing older is looking back with whistful eyes. I've recently digitised my Dad's and my father in law's photos. Among Dad's I found this, taken by his brother.

Me and Dad sharing a special moment. So much character in this. Me lost in my own world, Dad contented. As a photog now, I love the leading lines. Unfortunately Dad's face is lost in shadow, but maybe that's part of the charm.

Mike Smith's picture

The colours are part of the charm this photo has. There is a youthfulness that is a memory for many father-son relationships. Definitely rebound reminds me of my youth

Indy Thomas's picture

My mother was a startlingly good photographer. However it was my Great grandmother who really was the photo hero. She lived in Healdsburg California and photographed the local area and the people including Native Americans who were relatively integrated into the community. What was most astonishing were her photos of San Francisco a few weeks after the earthquake of 1906.
I scanned several and have prints hangin in my home.
Later she moved to San Francisco and became a fashion model and then married an undertaker.

Rod Kestel's picture

Could you post some?

Rod Kestel's picture

Wonderful! Are you tempted to 'clean' them or do you feel the ageing is part of them?

Indy Thomas's picture

These are the base scans. The paper they are printed on is similar to watercolor paper. I have actually cleaned them up to some extent for my prints. I toned them to a slight sepia and had them printed on watercolor pape. The final display prints look much better but still could pass for originals.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thanks for sharing those remarkable photos.

Mike Smith's picture

Thanks for posting these. They are a remarkable account of the earthquake.

Mike Smith's picture

I would also love to see some

Dana Goldstein's picture

Since my father was a successful commercial photographer for 40 years, his work sets an extraordinarily high bar. I don't have one favorite, but I appreciated tremendously a comment from the staff at Richard Photo Lab in LA, when I sent some of his slides from the '60's in to be digitized. They said that everyone there was marveling over them, since they were so used to modern photographers assuming that the lab would "fix" their film -- and here were such old slides and every single one, perfect exposure, perfect lighting, perfect focus. It blew them away.

Mike Smith's picture

Do you have wan any examples? Both personal and professional? There is something special about viewing our parents photo

Gary Morris's picture

Old family photos (and movies) are cool stuff.
After my father died in 2008 I obtained several thousand slides he had shot while my sister and I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. After reviewing all of the slides, I kept about 5% and shipped the remaining 95% to my sister.
Fast forward to summer 2019 and using a Nikon D7500, Nikon 40mm Micro lens and ES2 Slide holder I shot 120 of the slides. I had once tried a slide scanner but the process was way too tedious. With the D7500 I can shoot 8-10 slides in the time it took me to scan 1 slide.
I was going to do a book but got little interest from my sister and kids. I bought a $99 Canon photo printer and have made dye-sub prints for my benefit. This project was a lot of fun.
Here is my favorite slide. This is me standing in an intersection in downtown Tijuana Mexico September 30 1957.
I mentioned movies because my grandparents bought a 16mm film camera when they married in 1925. My brother-in-law had the film reels digitized a few years ago. It's stunning to watch 95 year old family movies.

Rod Kestel's picture

What a great story, thanks.

Mike Smith's picture

A fab story and a great shot. How manyof the photos arepre family?

Gary Morris's picture

None. My father took prints up until my sister was born. The earliest slide is from June 1955, one month after my sister was born.
We were in Mexico often in the late-1950s and early 1960s. My mother was a big fan of the bullfights and we'd go often. We'd get seats in the sun and to appease my sister and I (we wanted shade seats which cost a lot more) my folks would buy us the small bags filled with wine. It didn't fully work as we'd still complain about being hot.

Joan Ruppert's picture

I've just started going through a shoe box of my father's negatives, mostly shot in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It's been a mind-blowing experience. I'm working on improving my scanning workflow and techniques, but even the quick-and-dirty scans offer a window into his world I never knew about as he died when I was very young.

Mike Smith's picture

What a great group. And, seriously, why don't we wear hats like that?! Veritable treasure trove

Joan Ruppert's picture

Thanks, Mike. I've been thinking a lot about your original post and it made me re-examine my own discovery process. As I was working through the box of negatives for the first time, I was delighted to find images of my father and other relatives I recognized. But as I kept working through the box, I became more and more fascinated with images of people I can't identify. So in one way, those images are free of the sentimentality that comes with seeing the face of a loved one. But...not really. Because for whatever reason, my dad chose to photograph those people and scenes. Then develop and save the negatives. That in itself invokes a different kind of attachment. I'm working through this project on both a technical and emotional level. Which is another reason I'm so glad to have found your blog.