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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Preserved In Sepia

Some time ago, I was given an envelope by my mother. It had been sent to her by a distant relative she’d met at a funeral.  Inside, it contained a recently researched copy of my mother’s family tree, and some copies of old family photographs. 

Genealogy has always interested me; I’ve researched the family tree myself in the past. Demands on my time meant I haven’t gone as far back in time as I’d like, but I enjoyed the thrill of searching sleuth like through the annals of time and discovering things about distant people that I’d heard of, but never known.   So it was with great interest that I unfolded the carefully sellotaped together pages sent by my mother’s relative, and laid multiple generations of family across my kitchen table, to cross reference against my own efforts.  I spent an enjoyable lost couple of hours in a world of unusual names, of previously unheard of occupations, and exceedingly large families, often filled with high incidences of child mortality. But in the end, it was not the names and dates on the pages that transfixed me; it was the faded faces that stared up at me from the black and white photographs strewn upon the table. It was these faces that called to me, and drew me in.

Poised with vacant stares, gazing out at me from behind a veil of sepia, these men and women of yesteryear were my relatives. People who had lived one hundred years or more before me, that I shared a blood line with; captured in their Sunday best, for posterity.  Preserved, in a moment in time. Possibly none of them imagined,  when their pictures were taken all those years ago, that more than a century later, a 21st century woman, descended from their lineage, would be sitting looking at their pictures sprawled across her kitchen table.


My Great Grandmother

Of the pictures in the envelope, the only one I recognised was a picture of my great grandmother as a young woman. I remembered seeing this as a girl, in an old carved wooden frame in need of repair, hidden in storage, at my Mum’s house.  The rest of the faces were unknown to me.  I read the accompanying letter, cross referencing against the family tree, trying to place names to faces.  Initially, I had thought that the photographs might make the past seem more real, but as I looked at their faces, it felt that many of these long dead relatives were just like strangers.



Except one.  One face I knew instantly. It was almost a shock, as I stared upon the image before me.  A faded copy of an old photograph which bore an uncanny resemblance to my mother.  My mother when she was younger, in her early 30’s.  With dark long hair, which she would wind up in a coil on the top of her head in an elaborate ‘up do’ when evening engagements demanded it.  The same wide eyes, and defined eyebrows.  Belonging to a woman born over 150 years ago.  The woman in the photo is my mother’s great grandmother.
Great Great Grandmother. Born 1852
 
I couldn’t believe that, two generations separating them, my mother looked so like this woman.   The wonder of the Victorian love affair with the camera, of posing for portraits, meant I was able to see the familial resemblance, all those years on.  An illuminating thought, as I looked at these long departed people, was how transient life can be; and I couldn’t help but wonder, if one day, I might be the subject of a photograph being studied by someone, one hundred years from now, someone who might be wondering who I was.

Then I wondered if, in this digital age, I have less likelihood of this happening than my ancestors did.  I’m captured on camera, in just the same way, but in the end event, I’m usually just another JPEG, stored on a PC.  It’s rare these days that I ever make it onto photo paper. 

I can’t remember the last time I printed out some photographs and put them in an album.  It’s expensive, I don’t have the time.  To celebrate Pip’s first year, I started making a ‘first year photobook’ to have printed as a hardback book; a tangible keepsake to look back on.  It still isn’t finished. He will be three next month, and his first year book is still sitting in cyber storage somewhere out there on the internet.

Recently, I bought a remote hard drive to back up the photographs on the main computer. I was surprised to discover that there were 830,000 photographs in our photo library;  an almost unmanageable amount of photographs for anyone to have time to look through meaningfully.   When relatives have passed on, the relatively limited amount of photographs they leave behind are amongst the things I treasure most.  They tell a story, capture moments in time, that take us there, show us what everyday life was like, but they are special in their limited amounts - a shoebox full, or less.  I wondered, when I depart from this mortal world, whether someone will just shove a USB stick into my PC - or walk away with my remote hard drive, or indeed, if anyone will really care, and my years of digital capturing will just disappear, like me.

And so I got to thinking, that the legacy of being preserved in sepia, or even in printed technicolour is rather a wonderful thing.  Holding a photograph in your hand, turning it over, and reading in someone else’s handwriting, the date, location, and the names of people in it, is completely different to looking at a digital thumbprint and trying to find a tag.  Technology is fabulous, and I’m all for progress,  but sometimes, there is something to be said for doing things ‘the old fashioned way’.  So, I’ve dusted down the unused leather photo album I received as a wedding present ten years ago, and I’ve resolved, to build my own memory book, for future generations, with printed images, and sticky photo corners too.  Yesterday, Boots the Chemist announced, that they are closing their photo processing services in 160 of their stores.  Maybe I’m reversing the wrong way up the the one way street of progress; maybe I’m out of keeping with the times, but I don’t care.  I’m going to make the effort. I want to be preserved in sepia for future generations.

Possibly not like this though. Slightly scary?

14 comments:

  1. beautiful women MP, I feel the same way, with my first child I snapped away and have hundreds of paper photos but with TC I just have photos on the computer! I traced our families too, Mr J's grandmother passed away when she was 34 so he never met her, I found where she is buried & TC is now named after her.

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    1. What a fantastic story behind your daughter's name. Really touching. x

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  2. Ahh Mummy Plum, I have missed your blog posts, but this one was worth waiting for. Old family photo's absolutely fascinate me. Especially the Victorian portraits, I like to imagine what sort of day they went home to after such a, probably exciting, event for them. If they went home and carefully put away their best outfit, if the children went out to play in the street, if the lady of the house started the long task of preparing the evening meal and cleaning the family home. I do have my photos printed, but they are not in albums yet! I used to be very good at keeping albums going, but lack of time means I have a rather large backlog now! I think you will inspire a lot of people to get printing and filing with this post MP!xxx

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    1. Yes, it does take a lot of discipline - but I do think it is worth it. I love looking through my mum's albums of us as children. It's so easy and accessible and the fact they're only the 'best' shots means it's not overly time consuming either.

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  3. That was such an interesting read. Both your great and great great grandmothers look very attractive, elegant women. There is something rather haunting about these sepia photos - it makes me think that the world was completely sepia over 100 years ago. And you make a very good point about jpegs - its just not the same as leafing through a photo album - which I think is so much nicer than being sat in front of a computer screen to look at photos. This has inspired me to make a photo album of Little A's first year or so. That's a huge amount of photos in your library. Its amazing those pictures have survived for so long, but then in an instant you could lose the lot if there was hard drive failure. We have ours backed up as well, but I still worry. From that perspective a real photo is better than its cyber neighbour.

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    1. Thank you. Originally I had intended to do a yearly photobook for Pip - but it's just so much work! (The uploading takes too long for starters. Hence why I am still on year 1!)

      I've got a faves album on our PC and I think I'm just going to get those ones printed. Just in case...

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  4. Wow , what a fascinating read. How wonderful to be able to look back like that and see the likenesses in those 'missed' generations. Awesome - in the real sense of the word. I am illegitimate so don't have the opportunity, so it's great to read of yours.

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    1. Thanks OSM. The likeness surprised me too. x

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  5. What a great post i too think its a shame keeping everything on disk. Im an old fashioned girl still get my favorite pictures printed put but never seem to find time to put them in an albumb. A friend of mine once a year gets a photo book made online this is a great idea as they come sent to you ready in the albumb with little captions etc. Its a lovely way to record a year.
    Cat xx

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    1. It's not just pics for the album either. I've got so many lovely pictures of Pip I keep meaning to put in frames but never seem to get around to it. Thanks for reading x

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  6. What amazing genes in your family. Now I picture you as a beauty wearing the most amazing red shoes. Photographs are the one thing that I'm a little old fashioned about. Each month I have my favourites printed (and sent to my mum and my husband's grandmother) and place them in an album. It's nice to step away from the computer and have something real to look at. Lovely post.

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    1. Well it's very nice to be thought of a beauty but I think somewhere in the gene pool things got diluted somewhat! You sound very organised with the photo printing - I need to be doing exactly what you are.

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  7. Fascinating post and lots of good points. We have thousands of photos but only a fraction of them printed out onto paper or into photobooks. I love the idea of being preserved in sepia, I think that would be an excellent thing to do.

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  8. Thanks Polly, I quite fancy it too.

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