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Finding Ourselves in Family Photos

After 90 years, a photograph of my grandfather.

It's easy to "photo-shop" people out of pictures these days, but as any genealogist will tell you, sending relatives to the recycle bin is usually a very bad idea.


Even before I became an amateur genealogist, I was the person in my family who saved our photographs and put them in albums. My collection dates back to 1895, soon after my great-grandparents arrived in New York. Within weeks, they put on their best clothes and posed for pictures to send back home.


After my grandmother left my grandfather, Aaron, in 1938, she snipped his image out of all their photographs. Years later, my mother didn't bother to get rid of snapshots of my father when she got rid of him; she simply tossed them into the back of a closet. Those pictures, which survived years of indifference and neglect, have enabled me to recognize my blue eyes and dimples on his face, too.


I had seen Aaron briefly, when I was very young, and faintly recall him as a stooped old man with wispy gray hair. But I had no idea how he looked when he was a well-to-do husband and father. All I had was part of one tattered picture, in which my then 3-year old aunt is holding a man's left hand. That, and the tip of one well-polished shoes, are all you can see of Aaron.


Photographs are taken in less than a minute, but their impact outlasts lifetimes. Most families today have countless pictures of their children, but in the late 19th century, it was a new reality. As the late Susan Sontag said, "Never before in human history did people have any idea what they looked like as children.... To be able to see oneself and one's parents as children is an experience unique to our time."


Few children really "see" their parents when they are young and handsome. In healthy families, parents and children remain close throughout their lives. Little by little, the children observe their parents' gradual deterioration as their health declines and youthful looks fade. Often, many years pass before adult children examine their parents' childhood and wedding pictures to search for hints of the present in those youthful faces and ask curiously, were these people really my mother and father long ago?


You have to know what family members look (and looked) like, to notice their features in the youngest generation. It doesn't matter if the characteristic is desirable or not; what matters most is the satisfying confirmation of a family connection. "That's Uncle Leo's nose!" we assert, and "Grandma's wavy hair!" Personality traits can also span generations: "He's as stingy as my father's brother," or "Look how she dances; just like her namesake."


I'd heard that Aaron had returned to Eastern Europe twice in the 1920's, to bring his widowed father to America. Wouldn't Aaron have needed a passport? When I learned that photographs were required beginning in 1914, I jumped at the chance to have copies of his pictures. Immediately, I filed requests with the NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) to obtain the application numbers for Aaron's passports (he'd applied for at least two), and their storage file locations. Next, I hired an archives-approved vendor to photograph the pictures, which arrived a few weeks later.


In them, Aaron is vigorous and alert, nattily dressed, with a watch chain across his chest, and pince-nez on his nose. He is assertive looking, well fed and strong, not humbled as he appeared in later years. He is a prosperous entrepreneur with a wife and three children. He is on his way up.


There are images we decide to keep, and those we choose to lose. But maybe it's best to keep every one, especially if your family's been shattered by breakups. I've always known I have my grandmother's nose, my mother's curls, and my great-uncle Charlie's artistic abilities. Only after I obtained Aaron's passport photos did I consider that his appearance might be noticeable in his descendants. Now I see that he bears a strong physical resemblance to one of my cousins, also a very determined and successful businessman, and one of the grandsons whom Aaron never knew.


(c) copyright Susan J. Gordon 2010
published in The Jewish Week of New York