This article was originally featured on the B&H Photo explora blog.
My maternal Great-Grandmother’s family owned three cinemas during the Great Depression. You could say film and photography runs in my blood. Or, ran in my blood, until my Grandmother’s father passed away and the ties to the cinema were severed when they went to her brother. “The rest of the family wasn’t interested… I think there was a possible splinter or a grudge was held.” my aunt regaled. My mother’s older sister remembers far more than my mother does, and as she intends on living the longest, her story is the one I’m sticking with today. That, and she was the first to respond to my text about my growing collection of vintage cameras – many of which came from my Grandmother’s - now my mother’s and father’s house.
It was the house that my family moved into when I was entering the eighth grade. It was the house my mother grew up in. It was the house that her mother grew up in. Up until we moved in, the house was practically preserved from the moment my mother and her twin sister, two of the youngest, went away to college. The house was downright magical when I was growing up. My cousins and I would play alligator in the four upstairs bedrooms, jumping from the bed to the oriental carpets to an armchair and back again as fast as we could to avoid the “alligators” that lay in wait on the hardwood floors should we slip off “land.” Hide and seek was infinitely better in a house with not one, but two staircases leading up to the second level. Closets were filled with old prom dresses that my aunts wore and left in the cedar closets in the smallest bedroom above the front porch. An old pool table sat in the basement. Rusted farming equipment that children were definitely not supposed to play on sat in the barn. A gardening shed, a garage, and even a chicken coop housed even more relics of a time that was before my own making nearly every visit to my Grandmother’s house an adventure.
“Your Grandmother had a Brownie that we had to hold real still when someone was going to take a picture. And then there was the Polaroid and a Kodak Instamatic, that you had to turn the flash just right. But these cameras only came out for real special occasions. A first communion or a graduation, not necessarily a birthday or the holidays… And whenever someone was born – which was practically once a year – she would have a professional photographer come take our picture. I think she was so busy taking care of all of us kids, she didn’t have time to take our picture with her own cameras.” My aunt said when I asked which of the cameras in my collection belonged to my Grandmother. “Your Grandmother and Grandfather were married in 1946. They started a family after two world wars and then the Depression,” my aunt reminded me. “She was 29, turning 30, and he was 35 turning 36. Between 1946 and 1960, your Grandmother had ten children in nine pregnancies. And this was during a time when mothers weren’t documenting their children the way mothers are today!”
I didn’t have the same connection to my paternal Grandfather’s house. We didn’t visit as often, and when we did, I mostly busied myself with the strawberry hard candies that he had on his coffee table instead of exploring.
Like my mother's father, who came home from the Second World War, my father’s father was also enlisted in the military, only he was quite a bit younger and served in a different war. In 1951 or 1952, he was stationed in an anti-aircraft gun crew in Germany for two years during the Korean War. His eight-digit service number was written underneath his name on the side of his Brownie Target Six-20 that my father passed down to me. My Grandfather never spoke to me directly of his time in the war, and frankly I didn’t even realize he had served in the Korean War until I saw his military service number on the side of the Brownie camera.
In 1954, my paternal Grandfather married my Grandmother and nine months later, they welcomed the first child of nine into the world. In 1959, my Grandfather built his house, the house my father grew up in, the house I ate strawberry hard candies in. Professional pictures didn’t line the mantle in my father’s childhood home like they did in my mother’s. But from the sound of it, pictures were taken much more often on my father’s side of the family than they were on my mother’s side of the family. I asked my father where all of the pictures went once they were taken, “I’m not really sure myself. I guess they were in shoeboxes in the house somewhere. We didn’t have any albums until my sister made one for me, and my other siblings after I was married.” He responded.
“Dad wasn’t big on professional pictures, but he always had a camera kicking around. There were more snap shots of the family… Most of the pictures were taken with an Instamatic. That’s the one I remember the most, except I might have a vague memory of Mom looking down and taking pictures with an older Brownie. But I could be making that up. I was only about three or four years old!” my father recounted the different cameras he remembered growing up. What he didn’t remember was actually holding the Brownie in one picture while one of his aunts held an Instamatic in what looks to be the backyard of his childhood home.
“Your uncle, Marty has pictures of your Grandpa in his military uniform, you should give him a call.” My Dad suggested a couple days before this very article was due. I couldn’t help but wonder which aunt and uncle had which photographs, and how tedious it might be to get my hands on all of them. “That’s ok, I think the next time I’m in Kentucky, I’ll just travel from one house to another with my scanner and computer in tow seeking out these pictures.” I responded. He laughed, and most likely sighed, knowing that he’ll be the one warning his brothers and sisters of my impending visit.
Tracking down images of my mother’s side of the family might be a little easier, as the majority of them are tucked away in a box in my parent’s house. But it’s the mystery of this rare Polaroid of my mother’s mother that I’m more interested in solving. For a woman who had a professional photographer take pictures of her children, owned several cameras, but rarely used them, this coffee-mug stained Polaroid feels like a rare glimpse of my Grandmother that was not often captured. What was she doing? Who took this picture? And which camera did this picture come from? Clearly I have more work cut out for me.