A Prince Among Prints
The documentary treasures in old family albums
Ever been stopped in the moment by some old family prints discovered while cleaning out a cupboard or the attic? Maybe there’s an old album full of black & white photos offering glimpses of a bygone lifestyle, family events and traditions.
It could be a bunch of old family snaps and one or two formal portraits still in their mounts. Occasionally there are a few documentary gems, photos with seemingly broader significance that offer social comment on a distant era.
It happened to me recently. Among the usual subjects in one of my Dad’s old albums were a few unexpected snaps my late grandfather Leonard Buck shot on his Houghton Ensign folding camera, which we actually still have in the family (see right).
It was 1930, the day our new Haven Bridge in Great Yarmouth was being opened by HRH Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VIII, the one who abdicated the throne to be with his American sweetheart Mrs. Simpson.
As well as opening the bridge the Prince would also visit a war memorial in Yarmouth’s St George’s Park. It was there Leonard managed to capture a clear full-length shot of HRH as he was leaving, wearing a rather stern expression.
It was of course a random moment and we’ve all had unfortuante expressions frozen in time which do no justice to the emotions we were feeling at the time. A second before or after and the Prince may have looked straight-faced and indifferent or even cheerful and friendly. However, it appears the latter is unlikely.
Witnesses to his visit that day reported Prince Edward appeared moody. It was speculated his schedule and travel arrangements prior to his arrival in the town might have been responsible (Peggoty, 2015). No doubt the turmoil in his personal life around that time couldn’t have helped. So maybe the photo my grandfather took that day revealed a telling expression, a truth missed by many of the official photos.
I’ve been lucky to see, digitize and restore many old prints for customers over the years. They are often family photos but sometimes have historic value for the local area too. I take great pride in the process, in knowing I am helping archive in digital form what are after all pictorial documents.
Sadly, so many prints (and many more negatives) are forgotten, lost or destroyed and amongst these there may be a few which were especially unique.
It may be a view of a local street your parents or grandparents grew up in. Perhaps it is the ‘background folk’ in a scene, passers-by oblivious to the fascination their just being there would evoke one day in strangers of the future.
I’m always drawn to pictures of places long changed or photos revealing events or work environments, now poignant statements that shine a light on our modern day sensitivities.
Health and safety is one issue that comes to mind. The onus, ‘in the those days’ as our parents or grandparents would say, was on personal responsibility and common sense.
Another look at the Prince of Wales shot reveals two figures in the background to the left of the Prince’s right shoulder sitting precariously on a rooftop, presumably to get a better view of their Royal visitor. Today their mental state would be in question and the police and possibly fire brigade would be called to intervene.
A picture of my grandfather Leonard (holding on tightly) on the top scaffolding of the Caister Water Tower during its construction in 1931, with the project foreman, is another example of this chasm of change. Safety lines are clearly a change for the better but maybe we were more responsible back then. In what was clearly a more dangerous world, I guess you had to be!
It doesn’t appear my grandfather kept all his negatives. Best practises for archiving prints was rarely a concern in consumer photography throughout the twentieth century. Often mishandled, prints would be stored in less than ideal conditions.
Perhaps such complacency is still with us today. How many of us back up our digital photos or trust our snaps to just the one CD, DVD, hard disc or flash drive?
It is thought the Cloud is the future storage solution for all our pictures including those old black & whites. Facebook is the most obvious example – a virtual photo archive which can be accessed by the masses. So if this is where all those old prints are destined, what will be left for future generations to discover in ‘the attic’?
A royal find amongst someone’s family snaps may become no more than a mis-used search term by a stranger. Or maybe even those everyday pictures, as the generations pass, will find new value forming part of a grand new popularised visual history.
What would be worse of course is if those old family prints are never rescued from ambiguity and are left to fade into the past, never revisited with new eyes and never shared. Perhaps it is the sharing of these old photos which further validates them as documentary pictures.
Reference & Related Links:
Peggoty (2015), The Day a Crumpled Suited Prince Opened Haven Bridge / Great Yarmouth Mercury / http://www.greatyarmouthmercury.co.uk/your-great-yarmouth/nostalgia/the_day_a_crumpled_suited_prince_opened_haven_bridge_1_3991103