When is a substandard photo a great photo?

I’ve recently updated my Facebook photo from the Christmas version to my normal one. The normal one is taken from an unusual angle, and it’s a bit fuzzy. I love it, though, because of the photographer and the circumstances in which it was taken.

My niece turned 13 early last year, and for her birthday her parents had approved a mobile phone. This is no ordinary 13-year-old – she looks after her things amid the chaos of living in a small house full of teenage girls. So the day this photo was taken I took her shopping to buy her the Aunty Carole present,  and we looked for her mobile at the same time.

In the end the mobile she wanted was more expensive than her parents had approved, but with my contribution would work out. We called her Dad, he said yes, and we bought the phone and went home with it.

The battery had a bit of charge, and she started playing with the camera. She took this photo of me as I was leaving – the car keys are in my hand.

So every time I see this photo it reminds me of her, and what a good day we had that day. It’s not a great photo as a portrait of me, but I love it. She’s taller than me, as you can see.

Memories

So it’s the memories associated with the photo that make it special. I used to find this when I would edit the enormous numbers of prints from an overseas holiday. We used to go to exotic places with wildlife (and we will again one day), and we’d come home with dozens of rolls of film. When the photos were developed I’d sort through them and choose the best to put in an album. [This is like a history lesson, we don't do this any more!]

Sometimes it was hard to choose the right photo, because the memories attached to the photo outweighed the objective interest of the photo itself. The first lion we spotted in Africa resulted in a photo of a small blob in a large expanse of yellow grass, which could just as easily have been a bush. Anyone looking at the photo would not give it a second glance, but for me it brings back the excitement of the day, with everyone leaning out that side of the truck trying to decide what it was, and realising it was a lion! The first iceberg on the way to the Antarctic peninsula is equally unspectacular. So the photos are in the albums even though they mean nothing, and may be uninterpretable, to anyone else.

Family history

Perhaps this is a by-product of the Camera Age, where we all take way too many photos and keep them all. Or the Tourist Age. I was recently subjected to the digital photos of a nephew’s trip to Egypt, all 1050 of them. Overseas trips are particularly susceptible to this. After I had chosen the photos and put them in the album I would check with my husband to see if I’d left any out that he has particular memories of – a shot re remembers trying to take of a leopard, or whatever, that had no significance for me.

Looking through old family albums, then, may not be the time-consuming process it is for more recent ones, but the same principle applies. Before you flick past to the next page, looking for a face you recognise, think about the photo you are looking at.

Why that building? Or that tree? What could it’s significance have been? Who took it? Is the format different from all the others, an indication that someone else’s camera was involved?  Do the same people, or buildings, or even trees, keep turning up? Is it just a blob in the grass?

The best DVD of all – home movies

Sunshine IMG_1911_300x200It is startling to watch old movies of yourself. I’ve been watching some old movies taken by my uncle that he has recently had transferred to DVD for us.

My uncle has always been an early-adopter – cameras, movie cameras, colour TV, video player, computer, he was always first by a long way. I can remember one of the first videos he bought was Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty, and the way I remember it it cost him something like $50, and that must have been many years ago, when I was a teenager.

He took colour photos of us when we were young before anyone else had a colour camera, and he had progressed to taking video in time for my twenty first.

At Christmas my Mum gave me two DVDs to copy of movies my uncle had taken over the years, and today I’ve been watching them. They go back to at least 1950, when my Mum was not yet a teenager and living in a big house on the edge of Blayney. There’s kids playing with dogs and puppies, cats and kittens, and eating lollipops. There’s my uncles working on the farm – on the tractor, ploughing, sowing, and harvesting. People are playing tennis on the court behind the house. There’s a snowball fight. I think snow was rare in that area. It’s a shame the film could only be taken outside – I’d love to see what the house was like inside!

Then there are weddings – of my aunt, and later of my cousins. Twenty-first birthdays, a trip to the zoo, visits to Sydney, and lots of people getting into their cars to drive away. My grandparent’s wedding anniversaries are there – the 50th and the 60th. There’s a family reunion that I remember going to with my boyfriend at the time – I was 16. There was a visit to the Blayney Cemetery afterwards which I could have sworn I didn’t join but there I am, with the boyfriend, walking along the graves. There was also a visit to the old house in Blayney, with Uncle pointing out which sheds were there before and the hill where the snowball fight took place.

There are kids playing in my cousins’ backyard pool, kids playing under the hose at Gran’s, and kids opening Christmas presents on the front verandah at home, watched by parents and grandparents. There are lots of occasions where people are sitting and eating, or lining up at the buffet  table to stock up, or bringing more food out. All that food, all prepared by mothers and aunties and Gran, and later my older cousins. It was normal to ‘bring a plate’ in those days. There are speeches, at 21sts and weddings, with the ubiquitous bottle of tomato sauce on the table in front of the wedding party.

There are awful fashions, in clothes and hair – men in bellbottoms and wide collars and long hair, women who should have known better in short dresses. I am particularly horrified by my first pair of glasses at 10 – they were big black frames and after a very short time I stopped wearing them outside; and a particularly dreadful outfit consisting of a yellow Tommy Tshirt, an orange hand-knitted vest (originally made for my uncle) and jeans, and an awful haircut that can really only be described as a mullet.

There were lots of cars. My uncle was always interested in cars, and his preoccupation shows. Big cars, with bench seats that could fit three adults in the front and three or four kids in the back. No need for a van to move the family in those days!

I don’t remember attending many of these events. I don’t remember being at that cousin’s 21st, but there I am, sitting down eating. I don’t remember visiting the Blayney Cemetery with the family after the Oates Family Reunion. I don’t remember visiting my uncles’s place in Sydney with my family and Mum’s boyfriend. I guess we all have selective memories.

It is interesting to see how people reacted in those days to having a camera pointed at them, and the persistence of my uncle when they wanted him to stop. Kids were unselfconscious and kept going about their business, but adults were a bit freaked out. My uncle visited us from Sydney only every few months, and it was only at such times that we were subjected to the paparazzi treatment. Not like today, when every mobile phone has a video camera and kids put the results on Facebook or YouTube.

Of course, we were all a lot thinner then. And smaller. My little brothers have grown up and gone on with their separate lives. My beautiful sister has had kids and worries of her own. Gran and Pop have passed on, as has one of my uncles. My first boyfriend married someone else, as did I. The cousins I’ve seen married today mostly divorced and remarried.

These DVDs are priceless, and I will watch them again and again, probably changing my memories of those events in the process.

Sometimes photos appear in the most unlikely places!

I’ve been in the country for Christmas. My mother lives in Orange and a lot of us converged on her house for a few days. She grew up in Blayney and her father and his parents and grandparents all lived in the area, so it was a good time to do some exploration.

My g-g-grandfather, Richard Eason, bought his first block of land on conditional purchase in 1871. He built his house on this block where his children grew up. He later bought the long thin block across the road and the square one diagonally behind the first one. He called the property “Fernside”.

"Fernside" near Blayney on Greghamstown Road
"Fernside" near Blayney on Greghamstown Road

These first blocks are recognisable on Google Maps to this day, so I thought it would be easy to find them, and it was. My cousin, Peter, was with us and he had been shown where the house was by our uncle, but he’d never been over the fence to have a look. We stood there and wondered whether there were any remains of the original house. We took pictures of the old gate posts and we were looking at the gate into the opposite block when a ute pulled up.

The current owners of the property were on their way home and had left the gate open so they were just coming around the long way to the house to close it. We ran over to let them know why we were lurking on their property, and told them our story about Richard Eason and his son, John, and grandson Richard, who had all owned the place at some point. The current owner (I will call him Frank) knew all these names – his father had bought the place from “Young Dick”. Frank himself had gone to school with my mother’s youngest brother, who had been killed when he was nearly 11 in a farm accident.

Frank gave us a lift in the back of the ute up to where the house used to be. Yes, there were still signs – the outline was still there in rocks, and a couple of cement slabs showed a possible site for the dairy. Then he told us to wait here, and drove off.

Where did he go? Would he come back? I was sure he would but I couldn’t imagine what he had gone to get. We explored the ruins of the house and took pictures.

When he returned he had a photo in his hand of a man dressed in a three-piece suit standing on his verandah with a couple of dogs. He had a watch-chain and was going bald. On the bag was written “Jack Eason on verandah at Fernside”. Jack Eason!!! Pop’s father!

Jack Eason on the verandah
Jack Eason on verandah at Fernside

We have no pictures of Jack Eason and one of his wife Lily that we are not entirely sure is her. No-one living had ever seen either of them. Jack died in 1933 and Lily in 1930, before my mother and most of her siblings were born. It was a miracle. Frank told us what he knew – it had been his mother’s photo, and it was her handwriting on the back. She came into the area after 1933, so Frank didn’t know why she had the photo.

We talked about the property. Frank said there was no dam and had always wondered where they got water from. There was an apple orchard; when Frank’s father got a letter from the council instructing him to either look after the trees or cut them down, he cut most of them down. The gate to the block across the road was originally directly across from the gate into the main block but his family moved it because it got too boggy in the rain.

The materials for the house were taken away by “Young Dick” to build the house in Blayney where his family, including my mother, grew up. The gate posts had been replaced – the original ones were square and these were round. There had been a lot of gum trees on the property but they’d all got “dieback” in the 1970s. I’d like to have seen it then.

A question we couldn’t answer was whether the verandah was on the front or the back of the house. It made no sense to build a verandah facing the hill “and the weather” on the back of the house, but there is no way to be sure.

Frank went to school with my Uncle Ritchie and I would have like to ask him about him, but I didn’t. No-one talks about Ritchie. The whole episode was so traumatic for Mum’s family that they sold up and moved to Dubbo, and changed religions.

Original front gate at "Fernside" with trees near the house
Original front gate at "Fernside" with trees near the site of the old house

We stood there for some time, talking about what the place must have been like. I talked about the probate and deceased estate (death duty) files I had seen that indicated that the property had been run down when Jack died. He’d sold everything off and was in Condobolin with his daughter when he died. I was working  up the courage to ask Frank whether he would trust me to take the photo away to have it scanned.

I did ask, and we discussed my mother’s scanner (no good, as it turned out) and whether there would be a photo place open on a Sunday (probably not was Frank’s opinion) so I could drop it back to him the next day on our way back to Sydney. We exchanged addresses and he gave me the photo. I will always be grateful for his kindness and trust in me.

If he hadn’t left the gate open, and if we hadn’t gone over to talk to him, I would never have found this treasure. Sometimes photos appear in the most unlikely places – even in the middle of a paddock!