Time in a Bottle by
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Prompted By Vintage Photos

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I first saw this photo after my mother died. My oldest sister, who is the repository of all the family photos that my parents had (because she lived the closest), was scanning many pictures and emailing them to my other sister and me for use in the shiva-type services we were each having in our local communities. This one took my breath away.

It is a formal portrait of my grandparents and their two daughters. My mother, the younger, is sitting on something, perhaps the arm of my grandmother’s chair, so she is almost in my grandmother’s lap, but not quite. My aunt Daisy, the older daughter, is standing proudly behind her mother and next to her father. No one is smiling, because in those days people didn’t think it was appropriate to smile in portraits. Not certain of the year, probably 1924 or ’25, since my mother was born in 1921 and she looks to be three or four.

Wish I could have asked her about it.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: been there, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Great picture, Suzy, and so sad that you could never ask your mother about it. That said, as you have written previously about both your mother and Aunt Daisy, there is still some nice familiarity for us readers. And even without the smiles — and, you’re right; smiles were awfully rare in these vintage pictures — the family resemblance is clearly there.

    Incidentally, it does look as if your mother is sitting on the arm of the chair. But, if so, where is the other arm?

  2. John Shutkin says:

    I am also wondering if it was a one-armed chair. Not like the ones we had in some classrooms, but my grandmother had a chair with one embroidered arm and the arm hinged open to reveal a small storage compartment. I believe it was for sewing and it didn’t have another arm to, literally, provide more elbow room.

    • Suzy says:

      I love the idea of your grandmother’s one-armed chair. Since this photo was probably taken at the photographer’s studio, I suppose he might have had just such a chair, not for sewing, but for posing pictures like this one.

  3. Really quite a striking collection of people! I’m thinking about the photos you’ve posted here on Retro and can’t quite find the resemblance. Perhaps when you were that young… Your grandfather looks very old world and alive! I think of the semiotics I’ve seen written about photos like this. It would be fun to delve into thoughts about what the photo tells us. Universes, I’m sure!

    • Suzy says:

      I never had the chubby cheeks that my mother does in this picture, I was always very skinny. I have been told by many people that I look a lot like my mother, but generally by people who only knew her as an adult..

      I had to look up “semiotics” and I’m not sure how it applies to photos, since it deals with signs and symbols. Perhaps there is another meaning that I’m not finding.

  4. John Zussman says:

    Your photo, like many from the era, has real texture. Conditioned to saying “cheese” as we are, the family looks almost unhappy, yet somehow it seems more real than our smiling snapshots that mask what’s actually going on in our lives.

    I wonder if the aversion to smiling in photos back then might result from the difficulty of holding a smile through the long exposure times required by early cameras and film. And I suspect your mother is sitting on a stool.

    • Suzy says:

      I have read several different theories about why people didn’t smile in old photos. One is the long exposure time. Another is that they were modeled on painted portraits, whose subjects were seldom smiling. (Look at what a big deal is made about Mona Lisa’s smile.) A third theory is that in those days people with big grins were thought to look foolish or drunk. Anyway, I love the way they look here, it doesn’t seem unhappy to me.

      • John Zussman says:

        Interesting ideas. I didn’t mean to imply that they were unhappy; only that, compared to our culturally dictated smiles, it’s striking to see people in photos who are not. BTW I love this week’s song title, which implanted an actual pleasant earworm.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Suzy, I love the sepia tone and the texture to this photo. As John S comments, you’ve written about these people before, so we know something about them, but it is fun to see them here, formally posed. I suspect your mother is sitting on a stool, specific for this task. I do love the fact that her mother’s gaze is on her, while Aunt Daisy looks straight at the camera, daring us to look back and notice her. And yes, it is a shame that you can no longer ask any questions, as all are gone.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I love your comment about Daisy daring us to look back and notice her. That seems exactly right. I’m glad I had a chance to introduce everyone to Daisy, as well as my mother, and my grandparents, in earlier stories about them.

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