The backside of a photograph

6/5/1964: Mrs. Howard Johnson Jr., center, and her daughter Cassie, right, wind up the tour of the Sunbeam plant by meeting Sir Clacky-Wack who had free bread for Cassie. They were part of the four-day open house at the Murfreesboro Road plant for the 75th anniversary celebration of the American Bread Co. (Joe Rudis / The Tennessean)

I need a scanner so I can share with you a photograph of my grandparents in the 1940s, where they are sitting on the grass with her sister looking careless. All three are beyond a decade younger than I am now.

He’s in the middle, leaning toward my grandmother to his right. Her sister is to his left, pointing to her own ring finger, which she’s holding up to show the camera. She’s just gotten engaged? This must be reassuring to my grandmother, since I think this sister used to date her boyfriend – the boy sitting between them. Maybe this photograph captures a moment that set the course one way instead of another: Morris married Betty.

These old photographs look weird when people post them on Facebook, don’t they? Photos from last night, last week, or this morning – those look perfectly normal online, even when they’re shot from a phone, in a bar, of people you’ll see in a few minutes.

But Betty and Morris Stivender, circa 1948… You want to hold a photograph like that in your hands. You want to flip it over to see if there’s anything written on the back. Is there a date? Did someone leave a note? Was this the day my great-aunt got engaged to someone else?

Good photographers – professional and hobbyists – know how to freeze moments, reveal expressions, mark a shift in the air. They notice subtleties and pin them down. We sentimentalists thank them by printing their work, writing on it, and archiving it for our children’s children. A lost, but not abandoned, art.

Are there good ways to collect their work online?

Some lovely examples:

–  Friend and fellow journalist John Partipilo’s story about well-known Williamson County farmer Ralph Meacham, as he was dying from ALS.

– Former Tennessean journalist Ricky Rogers’ historic photo galleries of Nashville institutions are beloved. Here is “Nashville in 1974”.

– Tennessean music writer Peter Cooper and producer George Brooks scavenged through the paper’s archives for old photos of musicians to go with Peter’s piece about how “70 is the new 30″ in country music.

– You don’t have to be a professional photographer to give family photos a journalistic treatment. And even newer moments, like the big snow we had earlier this year, can feel like milestones when polished this way.

There is both art and science to photography, and I’m fortunate to know many people who have award-winning amounts of both.

But there is another, more subtle art involved in photography – and it isn’t always found in fine photos. Sometimes it’s the scribble on the back. Sometimes it’s your father, who has read a draft of your blog post, sitting down to explain you had the wrong sister and the wrong date. And while you are annoyed at having to rethink your writing, you realize it’s for the best.

Sometimes the most poetic thing about a photograph is how it makes you know a life a little better.


5 thoughts on “The backside of a photograph

  1. I love old photographs and the scribbles on the back. Before my grandmother died we sat and went through some old photos from highschool and when her and my grandfather dated. The stories they tell. That’s why I love blogs. It’s odd to think that these are our scribbles on the back of a photograph. Will our granddaughters find our blogs one day? What will they think? What will they learn? I’m much better at the scribbles than capturing photos. I hope to get better though. Working on it 🙂

  2. Kidd: Knew the song, had forgotten, am reminded. Merci.
    Here it is, if anyone else would like a listen.

    Jim: What were you listening to that day?

    Laura: I know what you mean. I even like when the paper is ripped a little, like maybe it’s been pulled from a scrapbook page.

    Cheers, all. I drove to Alabama and back this weekend, and brought back a large box of old photographs. Feeling sentimental.

  3. I love finding notes on the backs of photographs. It makes the photo’s age more real to me; I know for a fact that my grandmother or mother held this very photo, and it was important enough to her that she wrote on it. Gifts like that are priceless.

  4. Nicely written, KS.

    Listen to “Photograph” by Jamie Cullum if you do not know it.

    On art & science, I would add there is also craft. George Will, just today in the WSJ: “You can go a long way, but not all the way on talent. That’s where the craft comes in.”

    Random thoughts over my fruit this morning. Have a glorious day.

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