Reg Henry: It's hard to picture life without real photos

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We live in a golden age of picture taking. Never have so many pictures been taken by so many people.

Lots of these pictures have been taken with cell phones, not with actual cameras, which old-timers will remember as devices so old-fashioned in their singular purpose that you couldn't even make a call on them.

And where have all the pictures gone? They have gone to Facebook and Instagram, every one, there to be glimpsed briefly by "friends" before drowning in a sea of "likes." They have gone to The Cloud, there to be studied perhaps by angels with an eternity on their hands.

Where the pictures have mostly not gone is into albums. They have not gone into the sort of collages that used to decorate the hallways of homes. They have not been affixed to refrigerators, imparting a little human warmth at the gates of the cold beer cavern.

Oh, honorable exceptions exist. Some epoch-defying eccentrics still gather their pictures and paste them into books or frame them for personal galleries.

But, by and large, it is possible to offer this thesis: In this golden age of picture taking, never have so many pictures been taken by so many people to so little permanent effect.

Perhaps this is the result of the practiced art of photography becoming the casual habit of ego-ography, as exemplified by the rise of the "selfie." (For my own part, I can't imagine taking a picture of myself. I know what I look like, because at my house no expense has been spared -- we have mirrors.)

Which brings me to The Album. This is the great historical record of the Rise and Fall of the Family Henry. It spans about 75 years and, unfortunately, ends before the Henrys rise again, still a work in progress.

The Album is a large book with a purple-and-black hard cover with brown paper pages. In a flourish of amateur calligraphy, the front is embellished with the words "Family Book," but nobody calls it that.

The Album, which has not been updated for years, has been in my possession since my father died in Australia in 1998. Now my older brother Jim, who still lives Down Under, wants it back. As he outranks me in the family hierarchy, it is a request that cannot be honorably refused.

For a time, I lent the heirloom to my dear old Aunt Beatrice, the last of my father's siblings and a bridesmaid at my parents' wedding, who lived her final years in Atlanta. She took much pleasure in seeing herself and her relatives forever young in its pages.

At Thanksgiving, her daughter, my cousin Reggie, brought it back to Pittsburgh, allowing us the forever moment of turning the pages of the holy relic together.

The Album was able to perform one last traditional function. My son Jim -- yes, that name again -- came for Thanksgiving with his girlfriend Katie.

So, of course, The Album was whipped out and Katie was put to the test that all Henry suitors are eventually put to. Would she burst out laughing to see this historical parade of Henrys in the period clothing of three continents? Would she go screaming down the street when confronted with the evidence of peculiar generations?

Fortunately, all went well and Jim and Katie became engaged last month. The Album had once again worked its magic.

The Album, by the way, is not just photographs, although there are plenty of those dating back to about the year 1900. There are also embossed invitations to social events, a passenger list of a P&O liner, hotel napkins, postcards and newspaper and magazine articles, in which my father, who of course was named Jim, was inevitably described as jovial.

And why not? He was merrily putting together a historical record of a family that could be handed from one generation unto another. It can be read like geologists read rocks, one layer after another of accumulated events.

It is foolish to reject the march of modernity. Many innovations are good -- planes and cars are useful and penicillin is a keeper -- but there's something to be said for a treasure trove of memories that can be held in the hand.

Some people do take digital pictures and make real books of them -- my daughter has one of her wedding -- but most people don't. They take so many pictures, only for them to be forgotten. Thus is the golden age of picture taking robbed of its golden moments.


Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.

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