My husband has been scanning old film photos from a family album for his mother. His family is devoted to heritage and history. These pictures matter to them. They are worth preserving and sharing.
As he prepares to scan the images, I study the pages intently. This kind of album is familiar to those of my generation, a three-binder with a burgundy vinyl cover, embossed with gold-foil trim. The album is filled to capacity with magnetic pages where photos stick to the page as if by magic. A clear plastic sheet folds over the pictures like a blanket for protection.
Many of the pictures are out-of-focus and faded; even so they tell the story of his family in bits and pieces. Pictures document the baby shower hosted for his mother as she awaited his birth, his sister on the night of her senior prom, and his brother riding a first-ever ten-speed bike down the road in front of their home. Amidst the nondescript photos and casual snapshots, every once in a while, I come across a picture that stands out as timeless.
I am drawn to this black and white photograph. I recognize the location as Virginia Avenue in Colonial Beach where my husband’s parents lived for the first few years of their married life. That’s my mother-in-law on the left, smiling as she looks on the scene. My sister-in-law, Norma, is the baby and she’s sitting on the lap of a family friend, Susan Pepper. Norma is playing with a can, and if I’m not mistaken it’s a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Susan is relaxed with the baby in her lap, summer shorts and Keds sneakers, feet propped, a clip in her hair to set a curl. And there’s the white picket fence as the backdrop.
While I might not be able to define the specifics of what makes a photo timeless, I know that this one is. I ask my husband about the picture. He tells me that Susan’s father, Mr. Pepper, was a fine photographer with a good camera and likely took this photograph. Mr. Pepper developed his own pictures in a makeshift darkroom in the shed behind his house. I marvel over the magic that led Mr. Pepper to take this picture of his daughter, a neighbor and her baby in his yard in 1960. I wonder if he realized when he pressed the shutter that he was creating this timeless image.
I set out to research what makes a photograph stand out to viewers so that it remains engaging as time passes, despite changes in fashion or trends. No two ways about it, determining which pictures are timeless and which are not is a subjective business.
I found a good place to start understanding the nature of these classic photographs with an article by John Barbiaux, What Makes A Street Photograph Timeless? John discusses characteristics such as subject matter and style, the merits of black & white versus color, and story-telling through photographs with depth and context. He offers sound advice –
Your job as a photographer is to set the stage for such a story, capture the characters and place the props.
Going back through my albums, catalogs, and storage drives, I search for my own timeless photographs. And moving forward, I am ready to create the most meaningful images of my lifetime.
The privilege of seeing the world in this way is inspiring . . . and documenting my life and the time I live is my life’s work.