Come with me for a few minutes, won’t you? As an exercise in creativity, I would like to introduce you to four people who now live only in the past. No, they are not my relatives.
Come along; don’t be shy. I’d like you to meet “Charles,” or perhaps his name is “William.” Or, maybe, “Jonathan.” He looks like a “Jonathan,” rather than a “John,” don’t you think? One day, some 80 to 100 years ago, he washed his face, combed his hair and got dressed, as he would be stopping by the photography parlor in the city before returning home from business, and here is the result. Who knows what city?
I wonder what happened to “Jonathan” – what did Life have in store for him? Did he marry and have children? Was he successful? Did he have a good life? I hope he did.
And if you’ll follow me, I’ll introduce you to “Mary,” or was her name “Jane,” or perhaps “Elizabeth”? All of these were once popular, proper names for popular, proper young ladies. Let’s call her “Mary,” for the sake of convenience, shall we? Mary either lived in Detroit, , or was visiting there, when this photograph was made perhaps a century ago. Did she know “Jonathan” above? I like to think that she did; they would have made an attractive couple. Perhaps he, smitten by her, once carved her name in the bark of a maple tree. I’ve heard that sort of thing used to happen.
Now let me introduce you to Mr. Somebody. Mr. Somebody looks like he was somebody, as he is nattily dressed and his sideburns are neatly trimmed. According to the back of the photograph, his image was captured at Knowlton’s Studio on Fourth Avenue in New York. But he doesn’t look particularly happy to have his photograph, his “light-picture,” made.
Perhaps that is because he had to stand very still for some minutes as the photographer fiddled with the tripod and the lens. He had been instructed to not move a muscle, lest the photograph be blurred, and Mr. Someone did not like being told what to do, by anyone.
I doubt that Mr. Somebody ever expected you and me to be looking upon his face here in North Carolina in the second decade of the 21st century.
Did Mr. Somebody die in what was called “The Great War” that we call the First World War? Or did he perish in the influenza epidemics that followed? I hope he lived a long life and was remembered as a kind husband, father and a fantastic grandfather. Perhaps the photographer just caught his likeness on a bad day, and that he was usually a genial, easygoing fellow.
Here comes Mrs. Whomever. She had her image taken in Reading, Pennsylvania. Her slight semi-scowl suggests she has things to do, places to go and people to see and is impatient for the photographer to perform his magic. And magic it is, isn’t it, to make an image from light, from bits of energy called photons, so tiny you can hardly imagine them, bouncing off you and turning a dab of silver nitrate on a piece of celluloid a darker hue? Sounds like hocus-pocus to me.
Like the other three folks, she doesn’t quite look like us, the people of almost 2020. And it’s not just the style of their clothing or the cut of their hair or how the light falls on them, is it? It is something else, a particular quality around their eyes that says, “We are from the past.”
I wish someone had taken the time to inscribe on the backs of the photographs the names of those people, and perhaps a bit about them. Did the men become farmers, like their fathers, or did they become mechanics or store clerks? Perhaps one entered a profession as a lawyer or a physician or became a man of the cloth. We will never know.
Were either, or both, of these ladies teachers? Most teachers, until one got to college, were women. Most of them married, had children and left teaching after that. Getting the vote helped make some changes in that arrangement.
These people were, or are, the great-grandparents of people walking the Earth today. You may even know some of their descendants. In fact, you may be a descendant.
Remember these visages the next time you have your likeness taken, and for the sake of those who may look upon a photograph of you a century hence, won’t you please write on the back who you are, your age and something about you?
And for Pete’s sake, won’t you smile for the camera? Thank you very much.