Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Say Cheese

Considering how far the technology has advanced for cameras, they can't seem to replicate the warmth and feel of old studio photographs. I think some of my favorite images are the early tintypes that began appearing around the time of the Civil War. We've all seen the poignant photographs of soldiers posing proudly in the uniforms of their regiments. These portraits were usually taken before they went off to battle, and for many families, are all that remain of loved ones lost in battle. There is an intimacy in these pictures that somehow makes you feel that you know the subject. You would think them crude by today's digital photography standards, and incapable of stirring such feeling, but they do. The black and white likenesses that should seem stark and cold produce the exact opposite effect.

As photographic equipment improved in the twentieth century, it became common for families to visit neighborhood studios to have portraits taken for milestone events like First Communions, Confirmations, graduations and weddings. Studios sprang up in every neighborhood to accommodate the demand. They kept various props and backdrops to lend drama and visual appeal to the portraits they took. There were standard poses that didn't vary much; if you look at Communion pictures from the 1950s, they almost always featured Greek columns and prayer books with Rosary Beads draped over the book as if to remove all doubt that this was indeed a holy kid! The theme was repeated for Confirmation; why waste perfectly good prayer books and Rosary Beads.

Weddings were another event that required portraits. Often today, photographers don't have studios; instead they take pictures at the reception venues which are far more picturesque than in days of old. In the Fifties, the wedding party usually made a trip to the studio for pictures. It wasn't essential to have a photographer at the wedding. Who needed candid shots of capicola and provolone sandwiches being tossed from table to table. Most wedding pictures were posed portraits that, like Communion photos, had a sameness about them. The bride and groom, with their attendants, would always take a group shot. Then there was the mandatory pose of the bride with her wedding train spread out on the floor. My mother's lovely wedding day picture illustrates this perfectly.

Portrait prices were surprisingly affordable and even poor families were usually able to commemorate big occasions with portraits. Our photographer was Herbert Studios on Fulton Street. I can still clearly remember the man who took the pictures for so many years. He was whip thin, with a pencil mustache, and dressed like Fred Astaire in pleated slacks worn high, an open necked shirt, and for artistic effect, an ascot. Really, an ascot. I remember him applying makeup to cover the scrape on my knee that would not have shown up well in my short-pants Communion portrait. These studio portraits are part of every Fifties family's memorabilia and had the same warm and intimate qualities of the old tintypes.

I am very happy that some of these great old family photos survive. Many were lost little by little as the memories of one generation were passed down to the next. Looking at them is like traveling back in time. The faces and the places speak of who you are and where you came from. While it is still common for families to commemorate milestones in pictures, they are usually taken at some franchised mall outlet in glorious digital color that, to me, convey no warmth, no mood, no feeling. We are finally getting around to converting hours of Super 8 family movies to a DVD so that our children and grandchildren can see what they looked like growing up. It's not a Lincoln Studios portrait, but it will have to do.


Children's Craniofacial Association

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