Monday, November 30, 2020

Something Discovered While Looking Up Something Else

Once upon a time there was a fixture in U.S. downtowns usually found near theaters and other high traffic pedestrian areas. They were folks, most always men, who snapped photographs of passersby, then handed them an envelope with a number that corresponded to the negative that was just shot. That was normally the extent of the contact between the photographers and their subjects, in my experience anyway, few if any words were ever exchanged. The hope was that a certain number of subjects would stick money into the envelope, throw it in the mail, then a few weeks later receive a print of the photograph that was taken.

As a child I was the subject of dozens of these photographs made both in Chicago and Milwaukee, but my parents, grandparents, or whichever adult I was with at the time, never took the time to send back the envelope.

It was understandable at the time because many people feel uncomfortable about photographs of themselves, especially caught unawares as most of these subjects were. But it was a shame as well because years after they are made, these photographs, many of which are discovered after spending decades inside a shoebox, become precious artifacts, historic records of people and places often long gone.

I know this to be a fact because at the wake of a dear friend's beloved aunt, one of the photographs displayed was of the two of them walking together hand-in-hand on Chicago's Randolph Street, made perhaps forty years earlier when my friend was about five years old. The woman obviously loved her nephew so much that she not only took the time to send in the money for the keepsake, but also managed to preserve it for the rest of her life.  

The other day as I was searching the web collecting tidbits for my previous post, I came across this post which features photographs taken along Wisconsin Avenue in Downtown Milwaukee, some of them made by these "street photographers" such as this one: 

On its own it's a compelling image of a young couple out on the town. From their attire and hairstyles, one can date the photograph fairly accurately. Someone familiar with the city in that particular time could pinpoint the exact location where it was made.

The young man has a determined look on his face, to me his body language suggests he's in a hurry, maybe they were late for a show. The woman on the other hand looks like she hasn't a care in the world, taking in the sights of what must have been a lovely evening. Or maybe not, not knowing these people we can ascribe all sorts of meaning to this photograph which is one of the joys (and dangers) of the medium of photography. 

But in this case we do have a story. From the blog post, here's Shirley Ann Huberty's account of the photograph of her parents: 
My mom and dad in 1946 taken in Downtown Milwaukee on Wisconsin Ave. In those years they had street photographers that would snap pictures of people walking. After taking the picture they would hand you a piece of paper where you could order the picture. I love this picture of them! My mom was 21 years old here!
Shirley's sister Bonnie adds this:
The picture is of our parents Robert L. Watson and Jeanne S. Stephan. They married in September 1947 and went on to have three daughters, ... five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Mom passed away just before Christmas at 95 years. She lived alone in their home after my dad passed in 2008.

In a typical studio photographic portrait, subjects and photographers usually do their utmost to create a flattering "respectable" image, one in which the subject feels best represents him or herself, one in which they'd like to be thought of or remembered. These are the images usually chosen to represent people in yearbooks, annual reports, and in many other sorts of publications, yes including obituaries. In that sense they are not unlike the death masks that used to be made of prominent people.

By contrast, these random street portraits capture the subjects living their lives. They may not always be flattering like this one is, but there is never the artifice of a posed portrait, they are always real, at least real insofar as depicting a split second of a person's life.  

In this photograph lovingly preserved by their family, Robert and Jeanne are alive, forever in their twenties, a young couple in love with most of their lives still in front of them. 

Which only confirms something I've realized for a good long time, photography is truly magic.

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