Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Photos, feathers and frills

You might think, on hearing that the Victoria and Albert were inviting people to send in photos for a database on wedding fashion, that there would be too many to choose from.

For them perhaps, once they're deluged with photos; but it's surprising how those heaps (in my memory) of old photos and albums, stuffed randomly into drawers over the decades, turn out to amount to no more than a medium-sized box or two - at least for photos up to about the 1960s. In the five years I've had a digital camera, I've probably accumulated more images than all the decades-worth I've inherited from my parents and grandparents.

We forget how rare photographs could be (especially the ones worth keeping). The vague memory of some enormous piece of cardboard covered in Edwardian frills and huge feathered hats has to give way to the reality of a couple of faded, rather dog-eared, rather small photographs on the verge of fading out altogether. But another wonder of digital technology is that a little bit of fiddling with the scan of what looked like a bleached-out, "soot and whitewash" print uncovered ghostly traces of carefully goffered frills.

So now my grandparents and some of their families, as they were in August 1902, are preserved in a museum (so too are my parents in the run-up to the Second World War - much less photogenic neat and reuseable daywear that would be no more than stylishly "retro" today).

In 1902, everyone looks rather more grimly determined than joyful: but there's a clue to that, in the rather dull light and the fact that my grandmother's image is slightly blurred. They must have had to hold position for rather longer than today's point-and-push, on-the-fly, snapshots require.

A not very scientific sample of submissions to the database include comments, not so much on the fashions (what's to say?) as clues to social and family histories. In their group photo, my grandparents have yielded pride of place to the senior members of their families: my grandmother's aunt, my grandfather's mother, and his brother-in-law's father (who seems to have been acting a sort of substitute father for the occasion).

It's noticeable, and entirely explicable from family legend, that my grandmother's stepmother is definitely NOT there. Other stories would be sparked off by pulling this photo from the drawer: that the formidable-looking Aunt Sarah Corke was wont to limp on to buses with a winning smile and ask if any kind gentleman would give up his seat "to a lady with a Corke leg", and that among the imposingly behatted ladies is "Auntie Nan, who sneezed at the wrong moment and flushed away her dentures".

Such stories, like the frills, fade over time: but, as ever, there's a digital solution to that too, in "legacy" websites and "companion" software to keep track of family photos, videos and memories. The mind just boggles at the thought of the data storage required - and the future digital equivalent of all those holiday slideshow evenings: not so much Big Brother as Big Granny and Big Grandpa, available worldwide, 24/7. So long, of course, as someone keeps up the subscription: how do Flickr and Facebook and the like keep up as members die off - what happens to what they've posted, and are their executors reminded to inform all the websites they've subscribed to?.

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