About five years ago, I set about scanning my immediate family’s entire back catalogue of photos in an attempt both to make them more widely available and to preserve them for posterity. My father had constructed elbaorate collages of various holiday snaps, which were my inspiration, but I was also offered a number of old albums and shoeboxes full of ancient, faded images by my mother.
Part of the impetus for this project was the collection of images of my great-grandparents on my mother’s side. I don’t know what quirk of fate led to their being in a shoebox hidden in a wardrobe in her house in Ealing, but it seemed unfair to me that only me and my brothers, out of who-knew-how-many great-grandchildren, should have the curious pleasure of seeing them. I’m well aware that their interest to the casual observer may be minimal, but even they may find themselves asking the same questions about these people’s lives that I do: who were they; what did they think; how did they feel? Of what, in short, were their lives made? Many of these pictures were only intended to be viewed by immediate family, I expect, and so they are casual, unposed, unstudied – which itself lends an insight that more formal photographs might lack.
Along with the more ancient family images of people I never met or only dimly recall came innumerable images of my early life – as the eldest son, my babyhood was rigourously recorded; my brothers rather lost out by comparison. And then, in fits and starts, we all grow up at an alarming pace. Even so, placing the images in chronological order is nigh impossible. My brothers and I seem to grow at varying rates, so there is no logic to be found in comparing our ages; Tom is older in one photo than other, yet I appear to be younger in the one where he is older. Nor do I always recall where they are taken, for obvious reasons.
If I have gleaned any insights into my origins from these images, they are these:
1. My mother has a lifelong tendency to place her finger on the lens when taking a photo, regardless of the camera she is using. No amount of judicious cropping on my part can entirely obscure the fact that she is the only person not in the shots with the dark blur at the corner.
2. Digital is not always better. Some 70s images in particular have a crispness and vibrancy that digital images have yet to match (even though they have been digitised). Having said that, the widespread commercial availability of cheap cameras and film in the 80s clearly parallels the advent of the shonky images with poor focus, low exposure and, in all probability, a quality control sticker jammed on the original print. I do wonder whether the problem is with the negative – many of those are still available – or cheap processing at Boots.
4. Most of my memories of childhood have been profoundly influenced by various of these pictures. Thanks to my father’s collages, they have been hardwired into my brain. How weird to discover images of my life taken only seconds before or after moments I know so well. How much stranger to discover negatives of an extended family afternoon at my house when I was seven, of which I have no memory whatsoever.
5. I’m pretty sure some of those haircuts are against the Geneva convention.
6. Picures of my niece have a resonance for me that is entirely the result of having colour-corrected and cropped so many pictures of myself and my brothers as babies. It’s a bit like when I looked down at my handwriting one day, and realised that it was my father’s.
I scanned the prints – almost 1,000 of them – and meant to stick slideshows on a DVD. Instead, perhaps inevitably, I left them to gather dust on the hard drive of a computer that later died. I later salvaged them and put them on an external drive, which also died. I salvaged them again, having lost almost all the considerable work I’d done, and so did it again. Processing a grand of images isn’t so hard when you break it down into bits. It’s not even that hard with a hangover, thank God. I’m glad they’re available to everyone at last, and I hope my second cousins enjoy them.