In my library on the top of one of my shelves sits a humble display of media nostalgia. The Royal typewriter reminds me of my mom working hard at home while my sisters were in school typing income tax returns after she and my dad started up their own accounting business. The Fisher record player with the dual tape deck reminds me of my young family and how we saved “small change” until we could afford to purchase this amazing piece of equipment. Other odds and ends of media line the shelf, all bringing back fond memory of “days gone by.” The most significant item on the shelf sits unassumingly in its space, simple and unadorned. This piece of equipment means the most to me as its past captured memories that I shall always cherish: my mother’s Brownie camera.
Growing up, my mother designed photo albums the way today’s women scrapbook. She used black paged albums, creating layouts with photo corners and delicately labeling each page in her lovely script writing in white ink. As a child, I enjoyed carefully setting the then over-sized album on my lap and while carefully turning the pages, viewing my grandparents and great-grandparents who I never knew. Viewing these photos felt as if I was wrapped in a blanket, snuggly and warm. As our family of six grew, my mother continued to photograph special events and maintained these lovely books.
For myself, I did not engage in the exercise of taking pictures until I married at age eighteen. My husband and I received a small rectangular Minolta camera with a stem-like attachable box-shaped flash. As I began to document my new life, I soon discovered that lighting was an issue and depth of field and, and, and. Cutting off heads was not a problem for me, but nonetheless, I wanted to photograph with more light and less light and whatever it took to have a balanced exposure.
As my family grew and I decided to continue my education, I considered moving into journalism. Every journalist needed to know photography and so my husband bought me a Canon AE-1 Program. As I cradled the lenses in my hands, I decided then and there that I needed to know what all of those “numbers” meant, and I learned. Photography led me to graphic design. Graphic design led me to web design. Web design led me to English. All were comfortable stops along my “road of life” and literacy.
The Brownie camera means more to me than pictures on a printed piece of photo paper. It represents a tool for writing and then reading a visual history. I am not sure I would have realized this if I had not gotten into the English MA program and then backward mapped, making the connection.
In any photograph, a story is written. In that photograph, whether subliminally planned or carefully manipulated, there exists a foreground, middle ground, and background. There is color or lack of, lighting, composition of forms, texture, and style. The landscape of the photograph can tell era, place, time of day, and season. If there are people in the image, positioning of one to another tells of relationships and economic status. Even an empty photo, nothing at all, can be seen as an image and something that would be displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, SF or NY. But, all of this is now.
Back in 1839, photography appeared as the “new kid on the block.” According to Donna M. Wells in her article “Visual History and African-American Families of the Nineteenth Century,” “[Photography] revolutionized the way in which Americans perceived themselves and how they would be perceived by others” (Wells 59). In this article, the author discusses how photographs were first utilized only by artists and scientists. Economically, photography brought in a fair income. Scientists used the camera for documentary work.
In reality, photography captured the greatness and injustices of our society. No longer could anyone turn their back and ignore life around them because it was being validated in a permanent medium. According to Wells, photography captured even women’s history, labor, the middle-class, urban life, science and invention, and religion.
Furthermore, photography records milestones in people’s lives. They flash congratulations at weddings, graduations, births, and family gatherings. And today, bizarre as it seems, they are commonly seen at the most humble funeral.
In a more theoretical cultural sense, photography became “the great equalizer of race and class” (63). Until its invention only the rich could afford to have their portraits painted by an artist. Until just recently, middle class use consisted of adults only. Now, everyone can be a photographer.
As simple as the Brownie camera was to operate, simpler still is the camera in a cell phone. Portraits are literally a “dime a dozen” and even cheaper than that and much, much more dispensable. Where in the past a photograph was staged and taken for cherished for posterity, today it can be snapped, manipulated, uploaded, and replaced all in one day without a second thought. Furthermore, where the image once resided solely in someone’s living room or above someone’s fireplace, it now permeates the internet, available to anyone at most any time, all around the world.
Where does that leave me with my simple memories of my mother taking our family pictures with a Brownie camera? Were all of those later photography classes for naught since everyone and his neighbor can create excellent photographs now without the advanced training and help from Photoshop?
The literacy of the process of photography holds a value that cannot ever be replicated. My many hours in the dark room contain memories of developer and enlargers, all part of the creation of an image. The literacy of understanding what photography actually creates and represents is not common knowledge. It is the meshing of the product with the meshing of the process that gives photography its depth and warmth and life and value. And that is literacy.
Wells, Donna M. “Visual History and African-American Families of the Nineteenth Century.” The World of the Image. Trudy Smoke and Alan Robbins, eds. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.