One of my favorite geek activities is studying old photographs and trying to imagine what the people in those pictures were like and what they were doing the moment the photograph was taken.
I have had ample opportunity to do that in the last four months while I’ve been producing, writing, and directing 4 historical documentary projects; three of which I’m editing.
They are: Medical College of Virginia, 175 years, Sheltering Arms, 125 years, Presbyterian School of Christian Education, 100 years, and the history of the Jewish community in Tidewater Virginia. Each project has afforded ample opportunity to study the faces and places of people in their environment at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and before radio communication even existed.
While my business is motion photography; film and video , my avocation and one of my greatest loves is photography. I love shooting pictures and I love taking long looks into pictures that are so old.
Charlie Chaplain had blue eyes.
I did not know this until the other day when a Facebook friend posted this extraordinary web site that shows very old photographs magnificently colorized. From Lincoln to Walt Whitman to a Depression era boy in a Baltimore slum, the very perspective of these images and the moment they were taken was transformed by color.
The image was taken in 1916, two years after the Little Tramp appeared in his first film and five years before he became an international sensation. No mustache, a two day beard, hair a mess, bright blue eyes. The image could easily have been a modern photograph of a young bass player for a punk era band.
The expert colorization of that photograph was an epiphany. Chaplin was no longer simply a cartoonish figure who may or may not have existed. He was a man and I could see running into someone like that walking the campus of my alma mater, VCU.
In the course of human history, 3 million years according to most scientists, there have only been less than 200 years where we have had the privilege of gazing into the distant past for a perfectly accurate image of a relative, an event, a landscape, as it existed long before we walked the earth.
This to me is the power of still photography and why, despite the prevalence of High Definition Television, IMAX movies, YouTube and mega-megapixel cellphones that create moving pictures, the singular image of a photograph, captured in about 1/100th of a second, is still so powerful.
A friend of mine once declared that a photograph captures the death of that moment, an intriguing thought. I say it goes far deeper; capturing the essence of the subject, allowing us to gaze at the details of that subject without the disruption of movement. A single image can change the world; Lincoln with the troops in the field; the Mao poster that struck fear and awe into billions of Chinese people since his 1940; the photograph of the South Vietnamese officer moments before shooting a young enemy combatant in the head; the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square; Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny. Listen after the “phantom punch” knockout in Maine; Marylyn Monroe in Playboy.
All who know me know I have an addiction of sorts to taking pictures. There are probably 10-15 pictures of me as a little guy growing up. My daughter, for better or for worse, is far better documented with thousands of images of her filling up drives. She is 10 as of this writing.
Every festival or event, every trip to the beach or the mountains, some days just walking down the very old Richmond neighborhood of Oregon Hill, I am prepared to capture an image.
Of course, like so many photographers I love the art of it all. I love creating a composition that is intriguing, and pleasing to the eye.
Most of all, however, I love capturing the moment.
Looking through boxes of old family photographs I came upon an image of my mother in 1944. She was 14. Her face was easily recognizable but here she was at an age much younger than I am now. I opened in Photoshop and blew it up to study the details of her smile, her hands, her eyes. I am, for the moment, transported back to 1944, imagining meeting this teenage girl decades before Parkinson’s disease ravaged her body and ultimately her mind. I imagine what it must be like to talk with her, see her laugh, see her angry, watch her fall in love.
I look at a beautifully preserved photograph of my immigrant great grandparents, my grandfather and his brothers as young men, the aunt after whom I was named, and a baby who is now my 89 year old Uncle.
One little trick I like to use when I’m producing documentaries is to set our miraculous digital HD video camera in the exact same spot as a still photographer stood when he shot a building, a church, or a cityscape, 100 or more years earlier. It’s a powerful moment when I hold up the still photo and it matches almost perfectly with the image now appearing on the monitor. When I edit I place one image in front of the other and slowly dissolve to give viewers a sense of the many decades that passed between the 1/100th of a second a century or more today. The experience compels me to take a moment to pay tribute to the man who set up his giant camera, put in the plates, composed the image then set off an explosive flash to burn that image into the future.
While researching photos for the Jewish Community of Norfolk documentary I looked through hundreds of photographs, including dozens from my own family. These are photographs of people who link us directly to Eastern Europe. There are times when I stare at these images. They include my grandmother, recently emigrated from the horrors of the Cossacks in Lithuania, frolicking on the beach as a young adult in 1918.
When I watch the documentary on television or in a theater with hundreds of people I will smile knowing there was no way my Grandmother could have imagined that her moment in the sun would be seen by hundreds and even thousands of people a century later. There is no way the friend who took of a second a century or more ago and today. The experience compels me to take her picture could imagine seeing that image on a 50 inch television screen.
In the last 4 years I have lost my brother, my mother and my father. My grandparents are long gone and just last week my father’s sister died, the last of his siblings to go. I paid a tribute to her by taking 90 years of photographs, giving them the Ken Burns treatment, mixing in some symphonic music and taking viewers on a journey through the years of her life.
This is why I take pictures. I want to see my family again. I want to imagine a conversation with Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt or my Uncle Willie 50 years before he became the Uncle with a stroke and a glass eye and was simply a man who owned and operated a grocery store.
And I want to give that gift to my decedents 100 years and more from now. I want to transport them back to our time, our 1/100th of a second that help define who we are at this moment.