My father died in early 2001, four days before his 80th birthday. We knew that he was dying, so I prepared a photo album of his life to take with me to San Diego. His memorial was a small group of family and friends. Following the service, his brother and nephew took time looking at the album and requested copies of the photos.
Because of my interest in photographs and family history and my background in museum studies, my mother told me take his photos and archive them. I sorted through the thousands of photos (slides, negatives, and prints) that he had taken over 65 years. I got rid of the hundreds that were of poor quality, with no real subject. I sorted out the photos taken of animals at the San Diego Zoo or flowers at the County Fair. I then divided what remained into World War II photos (he had been a photo mate and staff photographer for Admiral Noble, head of the Pacific Fleet at the end of WWII) and family photos.
After completing the editing (which took months because I continually sorted the photos and didn’t throw anything away until I was certain that it could be disposed) I was surprised at how few photos there were of the family. I realized that at the zoo, fair, or Disneyland he took one or two of the family and the rest of the scenery. There were few pictures of birthday parties or holidays. Film was expensive in the 1950s and 60s, but my father chose what he wanted to photograph–It just wasn’t necessarily his children.
As I sorted through the family pictures I noticed the normal family structure—there were hundreds of photos taken of my oldest sister and my eldest cousins who all were born in 1947-48. I arrived in 1954, as the third daughter and the 8th cousin there weren’t as many photos of me.
There may be other reasons for this—I was a sick infant and my parents didn’t know if I’d make it. My father’s excuse was that he worked in China Lake and didn’t have time to take photos. But over the years my father lost interest in the family and became increasingly depressed.
I began noticing other things as well.
- In the pictures of his parents and siblings taken after they became adults the brothers’ wives weren’t included. They were in the room or at the party, but to my grandparents they weren’t important unless it was a shot of the whole group.
- The quality of the photos diminished in relationship to his moods. Just as he appeared happy in the photos taken of him during his time in the Navy, he also was happy after he returned home and met my mother. By the time I was born he had changed, entering a world of depression and anxiety.
- When I put together an album for my middle sister’s 50th birthday I noticed that although she was considered sweet and angelic looking she had a very different expression when she was on a ride or moving playground equipment—I on the other hand, always had a look of terror and it wasn’t due to my being younger.
- For years I thought there were no photos of my middle sister and I when we wore leg braces to straighten our legs. Actually I found one of me when I was enlarging an image and noticed the brace through the grass. It’s the photo on the right of the banner. I cried when I saw it.
More and more I felt the impact of the photos–in both what was there and what was missing.
When I first began archiving the photos I asked my mother how to differentiate between us girls. Her response was that “we all looked alike” as babies and toddlers, as if it didn’t matter who the photo was of. As I looked through the photos again and again I began noticing that not only could I differentiate between the three of us older girls, I could also determine who was in the older photos of people I didn’t know.
I noticed that the more open I was to the photos the more that was available to me. That is how Capturing the Soul Workshops came to be.
Note: For privacy reasons I am not going to use names in my blogs or photo descriptions. My sisters will be numbered #1, #2, and #4. For my cousins and aunts and uncles I will use their initials.