Tag Archives: family photographs

Finding Nancy: The Movie

What with the pressures of running two businesses at the moment, I’ve not had much time for blogging, but I keep coming across Nancy’s albums and feeling like I should be doing more to connect them to her or her family. So today I decided to make a short film that I can throw out onto the McInterweb to see what happens.

Of course it’s one hell of a long shot, but the reality is I’ve run out of leads. I’ve even tried tracing her through my ancestry.com account without any luck.

So here is a very short film about the albums. On the off chance that you know someone who has lived in Stockton on Tees in County Durham since the 1930s, please do ping them then link :0)

I guess this is a real test of the whole six degrees of separation theory. I’m not expecting it to work, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if it did! And wouldn’t it be even more wonderful if she is still very much alive…

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Everyone has a story worth telling…

Because of the nature of my work, I am sometimes asked why biography is important. People sometimes frame biography in terms of what they see as a culture of narcissism in modern society ~ “look at me with my [delete as appropriate] amazing/rubbish/(un)enviable/scary/heroic/nutty/successful/LOL  life”.

Whilst the ‘narcissist’ sticker could well be slapped onto many people, I think the word is essentially an ugly (perhaps even bitchy) one ~ especially when people use it in terms of biography. Biographies exist to communicate, inspire, educate, and entertain. They can connect with part of the core of what makes us human ~ empathy ~ and I believe that if we take time to learn something about the lives of others, our own lives and perspectives can be enriched in some way. I think this is particularly true if we are talking about your own family ~ or people with whom you share deep connections.

This is precisely what LifeBooth is about. I make auto/biographical films for amazing people who are not famous. They are amazing because they are human ~ and because they might be your mum or dad, your granny or granddad, your uncle, aunt, brother, sister, cousin ~ or even you.

Sometimes I think that perhaps we are relentlessly bombarded, and are too comfortable, with being fed by the shrink-wrapped slivers of celebrities familiar yet distant lives. I believe that biography shouldn’t only exist for life’s famous achievers, survivors, or those who have managed to tear off a tiny morsel of fame.

Having said that, whilst many of us might avert our eyes and reach for whichever robustly intellectual text we are reading, as the likes of Chantelle Houghton or Katie Price release their life story to edjumuckate the masses ~ they do still have their place. This is because they are obviously important to those who identify with these individuals; or those few who are able to fight the temptation to mumble “chav”, and look at the wider socio~cultural aspects of their lives, such as to why such celebrity exists ~ and see (if you really squint your eyes) that they are adding a tiny thread to the tapestry of which our whencestors will look back and try to understand our society and culture through the macroscopic lens of the individual.

Call me a big softie if you like… but I believe every life to be precious. This isn’t about comparing good-folk with evil-folk. I think the human condition is much more ambiguous than that ~ even the Darth Vader of the music world (Simon Cowell) has shown increasing signs of being nice! What I mean is that each life ~ each individual ~ from birth to whenever~upon~a~time; hacks, plods, drifts, saunters, and sails upon waves of events, experiences, and decisions that have been made by or for them. And so at any point in our lives ~ whether we are 8 or 80 ~ we have the ability to pause, recollect, and communicate. That’s our story ~ and it is beautiful not only because it is ours ~ but also because it naturally connects with all the important people around us whom we love ~ they are an intrinsic part of it.

With LifeBooth I have a big challenge ~ which is to get the word out that beautiful and meaningful biographical films are for everyone. It’s not easy, because it’s not a service that people know exists ~ so on the one hand I am faced with a big PR challenge (and the need to diversify services); but on the other hand it is about getting people to realize that actually, whether they worked on the shop floor of a factory most of their life ~ ran a million pound company ~ or have spent a large part of their life staying at home and raising their children ~ their life is amazing and worth recording for current and future generations ~ as well as the journey.

It’s all about creating a familial ‘artifact’ really ~ one that connects the past to the present and the future. This is what inspired me to set up LifeBooth. I’ve always had an interest in family photographs (which is why I based my PhD on the subject) ~ but whilst I find them so fascinating and informative, they also have their limitations.

I’ve often found myself staring at old family photographs (either my own or others) and wanting to know more about the people depicted ~ how they spoke, how they moved, their beliefs, passions, experiences, adventures, what they did for a living, what happened immediately after the photograph was taken?

Family photographs are beautiful treasures that can possess an exquisite silence ~ especially if they are of those ancestors with whom you are connected but have no actual living experience of. It is the silence of family photographs that I seek to challenge through my work ~ and that is why family photographs are so central to the films ~ because they become woven through the times, places, people, and experiences that my clients speak of ~ and somehow bring you closer to the past.

 

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The Red Album Snaps…

I received another album today that I purchased through eBay!

New Album's Cover

There was a wonderful collection of Victorian albums up for sale too but way too expensive. It was a shame though because the person selling those albums has split them up ~ something I find kind of sad and disrespectful in a way. I think it is shame enough that  family photographs get removed from their family base as it is (however broad that base might be), but to split collections makes it worse.

Several times I have looked at what happens to split collections to see who buys them and often the person buying one will bid on the other. Given the nature of eBay ~ sometimes they win and sometimes they lose. I think perhaps sellers get greedy sometimes and figure if they split a collection they’ll get more ~ there’s been several occasions where I’ve even seen all of the photographs be split in albums and then sold separately!

German Postcard from Nancy's Album

The guy I bought Nancy’s albums from was selling them separately ~ so it was a rather expensive purchase for me ~ although to be fair to him he did give me a reduction because he liked what I was doing with them ~ AND he left the postcards in there which were the very reason why he purchased the albums in the first place!

Unfortunately one of them slipped away though ~ an album that documented her travels through Switzerland. I contacted the person who won it to see if she would sell but she declined as it was a gift for her father who was in love with the country. However she was really very helpful and gave me some of the details she found in the album such as names and places they’d been.

I find it fascinating how such personal items as family photographs can become commodities. That probably sounds a little hypocritical coming from me ~ but I have an unusual agenda in trying to find ways of getting photographs back into the family circle so it’s my hope that I won’t actually be hanging on to them for too long!

One of the reasons why such personal and intimate objects as family photographs become commodities is that they are not only about families, but can also reach a point where they actually reflect social history ~ and that is when they can be connected to people’s identities. I briefly mentioned in a previous post about the woman I interviewed during my PhD research who was completely in love with the Victorian era. Her house was like stepping back in time! I asked her if all the family photographs and albums were from her family but they weren’t ~ they were all from eBay! I love that example though ~ because whilst they have been separated from the original family they are still very much treasured, looked after, and respected.

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Anyhoo, the person I bought this new album from was as helpful as she could be and answered my usual follow-up email to see if she had any extra info. Unfortunately she didn’t have anything other than the details in the album although there does seem to be a fair bit of info to hand.

This one is a bit unusual as whoever put it together didn’t put the photographs in a proper album as such, but used what seems to be a scrap book with plain thick brown paper.

Grand National (click to enlarge)

However the album still tells us that the owner was keen on tennis (there are several photographs of her playing tennis and also at Wimbledon), and horses through photos depicting her at various gymkhanas (my god I spelt that first time without the spell checker kicking in lol!) and also The Grand National ~ oh and that her surname was Gore. I don’t have a first name for her but I’m 99% certain that she is the woman in the photographs on the left here.


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Colouring the Past…

I was practicing some restoration and colour correction exercises on old family photographs today as I was thinking of including it as a service for my new biography business.

I scanned the photograph of my Nana and Granddad’s wedding outside the Church of Ascension in Easington Colliery (the very church where I was Christened ~ and the same town where Billy Elliot was filmed!). The photograph has been on display on the sideboard in the dining room and is getting quite faded. I originally intended just to restore it in black and white (which I did), but then fancied the challenge of making it all colourful.

Nana & Granddad's Wedding

Nanna & Granddad's Wedding Coloured

I love colour correcting photographs as it gets kind of hypnotic ~ especially when you’ve got some nice soothing Yann Tiersen playing in the background. The wedding photograph took quite a long time because of all the detail in it and you have to pretty much go over every pixel to make it look right. For example, with the bouquet of roses my Nana is holding I had to go over every leaf and then go in between the leaves to colour her wedding dress.

I also had to do a bit of research ~ I spoke to my Nana to check that the roses were red, and what colour Granddad’s suit and tie was. Even after all these years she still remembered! I tried to find a photograph of the church but there wasn’t one unfortunately. However I did find some photographs that were taken on the same street and so I used those as a basis for colouring the bricks. The door was a bit of a wild guess and I think it needs altering a bit to get it right!

If you are working on a photograph that has a lot less detail such as the one below of my Mum (or it might be my aunt!) when she was little, it is much easier. The problem is that with more detail there is ~ the more ‘cartoony’ it can become. The photograph of my Nana and Granddad looks much more obviously coloured than the one of my mum (to my eyes anyway!). I think the wedding photograph works okay though ~ the only thing I’m not as happy about are the roses as I couldn’t for the life of me get a faithful colour on them to make them look convincing.

Mum (?) Before

Mum (?) After

I think I might try colouring one of Nancy’s photographs later on today!

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Finding Nancy Part II…

This is the earliest of Nancy’s albums with the first photographs being dated as August 1950. To put this in some historical context, this was the month that Princess Anne was born, the first live television transmission between Britain and France took place (“how very interesting” I hear you say), and also when Britain began sending troops to Korea – “The Forgotten War”.

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What strikes me about the photographs in the first few pages of the album is that this is only five years after the end of World War II. This period of British (and of course world) history has always fascinated me because unless one lived through those times it is hard to comprehend the sense of loss that so many would have endured on so many different levels. For sure, there is empathy but I think even the most empathic of people eventually encounter that numbness ~ the limits of not having had those ‘real-time’ emotional and sensory experiences whereby we can truly know. How are people able to mourn when the whole world is mourning also? How did people who’d witnessed (and even taken part in) the most horrific acts manage to reclaim some normality in their lives. How did they (if they felt they had to) forgive themselves, forgive others, and try and move on with their lives? Where on earth do you begin trying to make sense (if there is any) of and move on from, that utter utter mess?

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I can’t help but think of these things when I look through these albums. In many of the photographs in this particular album Nancy is travelling through Cumbria and Scotland with Jim, Alan, and Leddy (?). They all look like happy and adventurous folk ~ having fun, joking about (especially Jim).

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I do wonder though (as I do with most old photographs taken in or around WWII) what the war took from them (because it pretty much took something or someone from everyone), and where did they find the strength to pull it all back. I’ve asked people this before of course, who had lived and suffered loss during the war and they all say the same thing ~ of just having to “get on with it”. If WWII showed us the devastation we are capable of, then it also showed our resolve ~ not only during, but afterwards too.

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Finding Nancy…

Today I begin a new project. I’ve had these albums sitting around for a while now but because of my PhD commitments I’ve not yet had a chance to do much with them. To be honest I don’t have much time right now either – but it’s kind of connected to my work…right?

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The seller could not tell me where they were from because he himself didn’t know as he bought them randomly at auction. The seller was a great guy though. He bought them because of some fabulous postcards that were in the album as he thought he could sell them on. Thankfully, on hearing what I was trying to do with the album he kept everything together, and he sold them to me for less than he could have got as he was moved by what I was trying to do.

On eBay – people will often split albums up into single photographs hoping they will get more money for them. It really bugs me when they do but I guess it’s all a case of supply and demand – and after all – who in their right minds would think of going through the whole rigmarole of getting them back to a family relative/ancestor? Still, I think it’s a shame that they get torn apart like that and whenever I can I try to get the complete collection – but I tell you it’s not always cheap!

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It’s kind of an ironic thing really when photographs that once provided intimate and meaningful representations of family life and family membership; of memory and experience, suddenly move into the public domain as objects for sale. It feels antithetical – they kind of break with the very circumstances in why they were produced. They lose their original symbolism and purpose in a way, but then again they can take on new ones. They move from very intimate representations to wider narratives that document and represent social history. And so in a sense they can become personal again – albeit in contributing to someone else’s understanding of the past.

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For example, I emailed someone once who had won an auction on eBay and asked them what they planned to do with the photographs they’d won. The woman emailed me back and told me that she was obsessed with Victorian history – her whole house was a shrine to Victoriana! The photographs, she told me, were part of this obsession. Some she would display around the house, and some she would keep in their albums – leafing through them every now and then and simply imagining and daydreaming about what the people in the photographs were like, and who they were. She felt, in a way, that she had a connection with the people in the photograph – and that is what I mean when I say these photographs of strangers can become personal – perhaps we invest a little of ourselves in them through our imaginings and daydreams, and simply becoming familiar with their faces.

I think perhaps I also develop connections with people in the albums I find. In some ways it’s hard not to. Going over albums, drinking in the faces and the smiles and the poses; times, places, clothes, events – you get to know these black and white spectres and begin to wonder what on earth happened to them – and how could it have come to the point where these photographs got separated from their homes? Behind each face though, is a story, and it is through my research that I hope some stories will emerge.

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So for these new albums I have a story is already very much present – a story of Nancy and her travels through Europe in the 1950s. The albums are beautifully kept and well organised, and the wonderful thing about it is that it is not just photographs that bless the pages but menus, telegrams, postcards, letters and ticket stubs. It really is one of the most astonishing collections I have come across and so I’m hoping we might have some luck with it!

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Returning the Gaze

This is a journal about lost family photographs and how I try to return them to the families to whom they once belonged. It’s not just all about this though ~ it’s also about the symbolic power and uses of family photographs in general, which is something I am particularly interested in as it was the topic my PhD was based on.

One day I found an old Kodak wallet of loose family photographs for sale at a local flea market and asked the storeowner if she knew anything about them. She couldn’t tell me anything – she’d acquired it through another trader a few years earlier.

Kodak

I bought the photographs and I spent days pouring over them looking for information that might give me a lead on tracing a member of the family. From the wallet I could see that the photographs were developed in Bradford. I looked on the back of them for writing, and with a magnifying glass looked for shop or road signs in the backgrounds – anything that could help me narrow things down. Information-wise the album spoke only of two things: a very poignant story of Jimmy, who in 1949 visited his Dad’s grave which held the words Elliott, Aircraft, and Royal Artillery:

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A picture of George Lothian (on the right) “from your old pal Judd”.

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Additionally, this couple (especially the man) were present in many of the photographs:

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I made a promise to myself that day when I was semi-resigned to being unable to find them, that if I ever saw photo albums for sale, and if there was any kind of information in them that would help me connect them to a family (even just a surname or a place), then I would try to reunite the photographs with someone who had a personal connection with the people in the photos.

When I buy albums or photographs for sale, or on the odd occasion when someone gives them to me, I don’t see myself as ‘owning them’. They are not my property – I am taking care of them in the hope that one day I will be able to return them to someone who’s lives are connected to the people that inhabit the pages. Often these photographs are very old, and the people in them have are sure to have passed away leaving only the mystery of a silent spectral vapour – but sometimes there is enough information in the photographs to enable me to start searching for them or their surviving relatives.

Why?

I’ve always been fascinated by old photographs of people. There’s something incredible about seeing a moment that happened a hundred years ago on a different continent; seeing a woman in 1902 with a laugh so infectious that it can collapse time and space, rippling though a hundred years and warming me and making me feel happy whilst I sit at home and still feel the energy, the happiness from that single moment. No wonder people thought/think that photographs can capture the soul.

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My passion for wanting to trace albums back to their original families stems from the PhD I am currently writing up, but also from my love of old photographs. My PhD thesis is on family photographs and how, when families and individuals go through changes (positive or negative ones) people often edit the photographs they have on display in their homes to reflect these changes. So it’s about how family politics, identity, and emotions come to imbue our photographs – how we invest more of ourselves, how we might see more of ourselves, through our photographs than we might actually realise.


This is because our photographs resonate with our lives. Usually we take them for granted – they become part of the furniture – we see them but we don’t really look at them all that often. But when someone we love dies, or when we’ve gone through a divorce or the messy breakdown of a relationship, or of course positive changes as well, any photographs that we might have of these people suddenly emerge from the background and confront us with our memories and emotions that connect us to the person or people depicted.

And so it has been through carrying out the research for my PhD that I came to appreciate just how important people’s family photographs can be for them. In a world where we are exposed to hundreds of images on a daily basis, images that we might relate to or not, our own photographs posses an indexicality to our lives that renders them priceless – they are “ours”.

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We traverse them for knowledge and memories, and if we were not alive when they were taken, if they are photographs of our grandparents when they were young, or our great grandparents, then our imaginations can be set on fire as we look for ourselves in their faces, forge pathways through time, and wonder just what did happen immediately after the camera shutter retracted…

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I think everyone can appreciate the importance of family photographs and what they can mean to people. Whilst we might take them for granted (even if just some of the time), they provide us with powerful and often symbolic narratives or reflections of ourselves – of our own lives but also of those we love.

Family photographs represent happiness, warmth, love, belonging, and continuity. Their power can only truly be felt if you have some deep connection with the person or people in the photograph. So I think there is something inherently sad about the photographs that I find that have been somehow removed from this base because they no longer mean in the way that they should mean. In a funny kind of way it feels like all the smiles and happiness in the photographs are a bit empty because it is only a person who has an emotional or ancestral bond with those in the photographs who can truly be touched by them.

So I’d like to invite you on a journey as I try to explore and try to reunite photographs with their families. I won’t just be writing about the logistics of trying to trace people. I’ll show you some of the photographs, write about any stories that seem to be emerging from them, and hopefully I might find a connection…or a dead end…but always, even without the whispers of these lost faces, there are stories that can be told or imagined…

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