I write to praise the family snapshot, not to bury it.


Wait – what’s that? What are they looking at? My cousin Brian is showing his girlfriend at the time the latest in image viewing technology – the slide viewer. It seems the slide (of no doubt either a previous family get together, or the eponymous family vacation) is quite riveting. You can see that he has a tidy little stack of slides in his hand – more absorbing images to come! My sister Susan on the other hand, seems distracted by something off camera. Wonder what that could be?


Mystery solved – my sister was no doubt distracted by the antics of our Aunt Mina – she of the orange pom-pom slippers and blue tea cosy hat. Unless of course Sue had been completely fascinated in a bizarre way by the cut of my Uncle Hubert’s (Hubee as Mina called him) jaunty pant leg. Typical family 1970s holiday fun. Mina was my mother Muriel’s sister, they being two of the four “Chicken Sisters” the others being Mary and Mabel. So that’s part of my mother’s side of the family, what about my father’s side?


Here we are at Grandma’s house. Five on a couch – quite the close-knit family. At the top end in the very classy plaid pants, is my dad’s brother-in-law Uncle Bernie, next to him my cousin Patty (at least I hope that’s right; Uncle Bernie and Auntie Olga had a gaggle of girls, and I could not keep them straight). There’s my sister again, then my Mom and finally my dad’s brother Uncle Walter in the suspenders. It looks like everyone is watching tv (probably Ed Sullivan) except Uncle Walter, who is watching everyone else. Or maybe he is confused by the person in the barcalounger avoiding the camera – I know I am because I have no idea who that is.

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Another Christmas – my Dad facing off against Sue in a game of table basket ball. I look at these images, I have no doubt they are accurate, yet I do not remember us having this game. In her memoir, Sally Mann speaks to the idea that the very taking of a family snapshot robs us of the memory of the very thing we take the picture of. Hmm…I guess there’s something to that.

I love the family snapshots and their ability to transport you back to a memory, even if flawed. Sally Mann’s comment came after trying to accurately recall events portrayed in family photos in preparation for giving the Massey Lectures at Harvard, and subsequently writing her memoir. Which by the way is a fabulous read.

I like being transported back to these times, because there’s so much subtext in each image, and because it’s so wonderful to recall all of the joy and hilarity of these family gatherings. I also love the mystery that the intervening years provides – the not knowing sometimes who’s who in a snapshot, or exactly when a photo was taken.

The other thing I love, looking back at these slides, is the limited number of images that were taken because of the costs of film and processing. There are “just enough” images from any one event, and I rarely wish there were more, or less. These days, it’s not unusual for thousands of images to be made at a family gathering. I’m pretty sure that’s too many and I suspect that the degradation of memory of an event that Sally Mann wrote about becomes greater as the number of snapshots made increases. I’m pretty sure my Dad must have fantastically clear memories of all our family events – he was the kind of dad who could have up to 3 Christmases on a single roll of film.