Never Stand on the Edge of a Family Photo … by
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Prompted By Group Photos

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And other Lessons About Group Portraits

Obligatory wedding photo – my mother’s side of the family

Taking those grand family photos is not a thing for my children’s generation.

One of my favorite stories about my late mother-in-law, AKA Nana, was the group family photo taken at a wedding. She had a huge copy made, which hung prominently in her living room. She loved that picture. But when my youngest sister-in-law was divorced, what was she going to do with a beloved and expensive family portrait featuring her former son-in-law?

Nana was a clever woman. Even in this pre-digital era, she found a way to erase him from the family. She removed the now offensive photo from its frame and drew a curtain over her daughter’s ex. Then, she drew a matching curtain on the other side. I wish I had inherited that picture because it was masterful. From that point on, whenever new members joined my husband’s side of the family, the running joke was not to end up standing near the edge of the photo.

I inherited my parents’ love for taking family photos to mark special occasions. We took so many of them and I still love reminiscing about who had joined the family, how cute my kids and then grandkids were, and how my nieces and nephews had found partners and started their own families. I never dreamed I would one day be confronted with Nana’s dilemma, but sadly it happened. Not too long after we gathered to celebrate my mother’s ninetieth birthday, my youngest daughter and her spouse divorced, and I was left with what to do about that family portrait, the last one that included my mother. The offensive ex-son-in-law was very tall and stood in the middle of the back row. I had some rudimentary skills with photo editing and decided to remove his head. Wish I could have done that in real life. Unfortunately, he was holding the baby, who ended up weirdly floating in space. I tried rehanging the picture like Nana had done, but my editing resulted in an eerie family photo. Ultimately, I took it down with great sadness.

Growing up, taking the huge family photo at special events was such a big deal that it caused a rift between me and one of my uncles. His son, who is much younger than I, has a bar mitzvah on the same day that I was a bridesmaid at a college friend’s wedding. I attended the bar mitzvah service, went to my friend’s wedding, and left the wedding celebration in time to make an appearance at my cousin’s party. As a recent college graduate and engaged to be married woman, I thought I had gone above and beyond what was a reasonable expectation. But I missed the family portrait and my uncle held a grudge about it for several years. That’s how sacred those pictures were for his generation.

My parents, sibs, and some grandkids, 1979

 

Same family, 1985

 

Around 2000

When I look at my collection of group photos from family events, some inherited from my grandparents and parents, I wonder what it was about past generations that made taking these pictures worth the time it took to pose for them, especially ones like my featured image. My grandparents are on the far left and my mother is a baby in her father’s arms. There are easily 100 people in this picture taken in 1923. Given the technology of the day, they had to stand or sit still for a pretty long time to capture this image, which must have been very important to them. Who are they? Why is there a cake on the table? I’m still fascinated by the image.

Our sukkah, 2005

For 40 years, our Chavurah (Jewish friendship group) built and decorated a sukkah every fall. And it was our tradition to take an annual picture. That’s right, we have 40 of these group photos. They range from years with 14 little kids and grandparents to years with only a handful of kids as they went off to college and fewer grandparents as that generation died to one of our final pictures that looked like this:

This chronicle of our group’s evolution is priceless and was well worth the effort it took to herd everyone into the photo.

Taking those grand family photos is not a thing for my children’s generation. When they have a photographer for a special event — a wedding or bat mitzvah, for example — they want pictures that capture the essence of the event, photo journalism style. Posed pictures are out. Even on those rare occasions when my immediate family got together, pre-pandemic, it was a struggle to get them to humor me with one of those pictures. We did manage it for our 50th anniversary because that was the only gift we wanted. But I know my children don’t feel the way I do about these pictures of a large group of family members.

50th anniversary

Someday, when I’m gone and they are looking at my photos, they may regret not having group photos of their own expanding families at various ages and stages. They have countless pictures on their iPhones but very few printed out in frames. And like so much of today’s world, most of their photos are of a few people doing something or selfies. I guess it would be hard to look at a large family photo on a small screen. That’s a sad loss in my book.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: funny, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, you and I are totally in alignment on this one! Except I don’t edit out offending ex-spouses. I just live with them, forever enshrined on my walls (after all, my parents divorced, but I didn’t separate them in my wedding portraits; my dad was deceased by the time the bar mitzvahs rolled around).

    I am very impressed that you made it to a family bar mitzvah and were a bridesmaid on the same day and went back and forth between events. I find your uncle’s position to be harsh, but I suppose families have fought about smaller things. Families can be so weird.

    I agree with your assessment. At some point this younger generation WILL want to know about their forbearers, beyond selfies and what can fit on an iPhone. I used to print out all my digital photos. I don’t any longer, but now, with my new granddaughter, I will have to rethink that one. Thanks for the great insights and photos!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      It’s also a good idea to put names on the back of photos. I found that helpful in going through my parents’ pictures, but sadly many of the names didn’t mean anything to me because my parents didn’t share who they were.

  2. How funny Laurie to read about the photo-shopping to cut out the image of someone who’s become persona non grata!

    On a sadder note – my son’s Bar Mitzvah album is on a shelf in the living room, and we look through it often and bemoan how many who celebrated with us that day are no longer here.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    What a great collection of both photos and stories to go with them, Laurie. And, yes, Nana was brilliant — as is your title. That said, I have also heard comedians riff about the opposite problem: whether or not to include a serious girlfriend/boyfriend in a family photo, or is that too much of a “commitment” right there?

    And not only do I agree with your point about wondering whether the younger generations will regret not having gone through the effort of having these family photos taken, reading and looking at your story and similar ones makes me regret that we really didn’t do that much of it in our family as I was growing up. Ah, well…..

    • Laurie Levy says:

      If I’m being truthful, John, I pretend I am doing this for my kids and grandkids, but it’s really my thing. They may not care that much, but if they do, they can dig through all of my scanned pictures. I guess I should label them?

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    It is hard to put the names on the back of a digital picture, or label it reliably. I think the dedication to group photos was stronger when they were rarer, and the ease of images now deceives us into thinking we have all we need. Thanks for sharing all those pictures, and if you haven’t labelled them all yet, don’t delay.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      My next project, Khati. I tried to label many of them when I scanned them, but the names won’t mean much to future generations. A friend who studied genealogy recommended writing just one sentence to go with each name. I may try that.

  5. Dave Ventre says:

    That’s a great collection of photos.

    My tendency to forget the name of anyone I haven’t met 100+ times (and had a recent refresher) still makes even moderately large gatherings a bit of an embarrassment!

    I have a few prints of VERY old family gatherings but no one left alive to provide the backstory. I wish someone had annotated them on the back!

  6. Marian says:

    Wow, your mother-in-law was creative in excising the offending person out of a photo, Laurie. I surrendered most of my wedding album to my former husband, who is more sentimental about such things, but did keep prints of some of my family. I love the older photos, as I mention in my story, and am eternally grateful to my dad for annotating every single one! As one of the oldest in my generation, I recognize many more people than my younger brother and cousins do, but it’s reassuring to have it confirmed in writing.

  7. Suzy says:

    Your advice is so funny, Laurie! But also true – my mother removed my sisters’ husbands from their wedding photos, which is hard to do because the groom is generally in the center. She just cut the photos down the middle and taped the sides together. I love that your mother-in-law drew a curtain over the former spouse, that’s even better!

    You show us such wonderful family photos, I’m really surprised that your kids are not interested in continuing that tradition. Maybe if they read your story they will be persuaded to change their views.

  8. Susan Bennet says:

    What a fun story about your nana’s DYI photoshop caper, Laurie. You set it up perfectly.

    Another gorgeous family! It’s wonderful to see. You are blessed.

    Perhaps the answer is, after a marriage, to move the inlaws permanently to the edges, just in case?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I love your solution, but once Nana removed the ex-son-in-law, no one new would stand on the end in subsequent family photos. Maybe someday one of my grandkids who have better photoshop skills than can remove my ex-son-in-law and put the baby in my arms. I girl can hope.

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