Vernacular Photos

When you are a photographer, photographs come to you. Much as a doctor or a lawyer at a party is often asked for advice, when people know you are a photographer, they often ask for your opinion about photographic matters or tell you about their personal or family photographs.

It has been years since I was visiting my aunt Peg in Florida, when she told me that her aunt had just sent her a box containing dozens of rolls of film. These were taken by my great-aunt Ruthie’s husband, Henry Giuliani, who had passed away some 20 years ago. I asked to see the film and she brought out what looked like a small ammunitions box from World War II. It was metal and painted army-green. Inside the box were dozens of rolls of very flammable, nitrate-based film. This was family history and it was in danger of being lost forever.

I asked my Aunt Peg to let me take the film. She said that it had been in this box for 60 years and it would be fine in her care. I told her that the box had been in Massachusetts where it is cold and dry. In the hot and humid Florida climate, it would be destroyed in a matter of months. In this case, the photographs didn’t come to me so much as I begged her to give me the film in order to preserve it.

Back in New York, the rolls were scanned, yielding 1500 images that had been shot on Kodak, Agfa, and Dupont film in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. There were pictures of dinners on the town, my cousins by a pier at a lake, and a boy clowning it up for the camera at a family barbeque. My uncle was a leg man and there are many pictures of my great-aunt’s beautiful limbs, including experimental pieces with filmy fabric draped over her legs. He was an avid amateur photographer and took photographs of trees covered in snow, landscapes in all different kinds of light, and portraits, including self-portraits, which were clearly meant for artistic purposes rather than recording family life.

From the 1500 images, I chose 25 images to work with. I retouched them, removing dust, dirt, and scratches, and adjusted the contrast for printing. One of my favorite photographs from this group is a self-portrait of my uncle looking into the camera and holding a pipe to his mouth, looking like William Holden in his middle years.

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