It never fails. Once you think you’ve completely finished a project, something new falls into your lap and you find yourself in the position of either revising a completed project and risking the possibility that the new information will go unnoticed, or, you create a whole new piece centered on the newfound information. During the last week, this has happened to me twice– on the same project, no less–and after weighing the pros and cons of both, I opted to create a new piece.
You see, the new information I’ve come across is, by no means, trivial. Rather, the four recently discovered cartes de visite I’ve located are, in fact, as important to my recent genealogical research as any single element could possibly be. (In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a “carte de visite” is a photograph. See n.b. at the end of the post.) In my opinion, a vintage image of a loved one who has died is probably the most valuable thing you can possess. Two of them came to me via a distant relative I met through Find a Grave, and the other two were hiding in the depths of my mother’s closet.
In the twenty-first century, everyone is a photographer. With DSLRs available in virtually every price range and a decent camera in every mobile phone on the market, the word “photographer” doesn’t have much of a concrete definition anymore. It has been said that this generation is the most photographed generation to date, yet no one seems to understand the importance and the longevity of a print. With the Cloud and Facebook pages and Instagram, photo sharing is at an all time high, yet no one has actual pictures. There is something tangible and permanent about an actual printed photograph. Teachers and parents are doing a good job of showing today’s youth that inappropriate selfies posted online are there forever, but the billions of baby pictures saved on hard drives and DVDs and thumb drives could be wiped away and lost in an instant. Just the thought is kind of scary.
Twenty years ago, I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Photocommunications from St Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. Within this pre-digital course of study, I learned about photography the old fashioned way: with film and paper in the dark with chemicals. Mistakes were expensive, time consuming, and often, emotional. And they were also incredibly valuable. While learning how to make a good photograph, I also learned about the history of the art, and how the masters in the early days created the lasting images that so many people take for granted today. We learned how each image is precious and unique, and how these early images were actually valuable, not just in financial terms, but also valuable sentimentally. I learned about daguerreotypes and ambrotypes and tintypes and Talbotypes and cyanotypes. I learned about cartes de visite and cabinet cards and archiving and toning and preservation. And yes, I even took an elective in the new fangled “digital photography” whereI scanned pictures to a disk and carried them across the computer lab to my Mac LCII where I monkeyed around with them in Adobe Photoshop 2.5 (insert “oohs” and “ahhs” here). And, in an apprenticeship I had in the summer of 1993, I got to see a real digital camera. Up close. It was the future, they said, but took waaaay too long to be practical for anything other than maybe still commercial photography. But this new technology was nowhere near as exciting as holding those antique photographs and imagining how thrilling it must’ve been to have them when they were cutting edge technology.
So, back in the 90’s when my mother and I discovered the huge cache of vintage photographs among the things she had kept when her father had sold their family home in the 1960s, I almost had a heart attack. It was like my Christmas. We took all of the photographs out of the cardboard boxes in the attic, transferred them to archival-friendly containers, and stored them in a climate-controlled part of the house. In the dark. And it was in this environment that these images would sit until I got the urge to re-discover them, and share them with the world. (It is only now that I truly appreciate the digital age because these amazing vintage images can be shared with a few clicks, and I love that!)
At first, I simply began posting them to Facebook and Instagram. And then I started attaching them to “my people” on ancestry.com to share them with others who may be more distantly related. But, you see, just sharing them alongside names and dates wasn’t enough for me. Back in college, I enjoyed History of Photography so much that I took historical and biographical research courses as well. I love the images, but the image is only half of the story. When you pair the photograph and the biography, it all comes comes to life. When I graduated, I was only 3-hours short of a minor in biographical research writing, and I couldn’t justify delaying graduation for one course. However, the biographical research bug gets into you, and it stays there. Now, it’s better known as genealogical research or ancestry research, but it’s the same thing. And it’s WAY easier now that everything has been digitized.
Every time I shared a picture, I found myself wanting to include extensive captions about everyone. So I stopped. I gathered my thoughts, sat down, and decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do– I decided to write a book. And I’d start with a blog. The blog would be my outline, and I’d follow one person at a time. From birth through death, I’d follow my subject. And when I was done, I’d choose someone else to follow. Could be someone from the same branch, could be from a different line altogether. But I wanted a good story– photos, events, documents– PROOF. I’m the type of researcher who believes that a family story just ain’t true unless it can be substantiated– DOCUMENTED. I verify everything before I commit it to paper. Sometimes it’s disappointing as hell. Other times, it’s incredibly gratifying. Either way, I want the truth, because a lie or an exaggerated version of the truth doesn’t benefit anyone, and does a disservice to the memory of the deceased.
So when I started It’s a Beautiful Tree, I focused on the most popular photo from my family photo sharing stint: the infamous “Hot Great Grandpa” photo. When I found the “Hot Great Grandpa” photo, the first thing I said to myself was DA-YAM! HE. IS. HOT! And then I posted it with a caption about being related to someone who was smoking’ hot, and about an hour later, realized that it was my great grandfather. Oops. Well, with the internet as it is, most of my friends had already seen it, and, since I am usually the punchline of all my own jokes, I made a comment about my “hot great grandpa,” and the nickname stuck. So every time I talked to a friend about my blog and research progress, the comment was always, “you mean ‘Hot Great Grandpa’?” Yes. Hot Great Grandpa.
So, I researched and researched and emailed and called and googled and searched for any photographic evidence of Hot Great Grandpa that I could find. As it turned out, the only images I could find were sitting in my office. I finally admitted defeat, finished up my piece, and started on my next
victim… I mean ancestor. And then something funny happened. A distant relative I never knew emailed me scans of two cartes to visite of Hot Great Grandpa when he was a baby. One of him at about a year old, the other when he was about two. I was elated. But, the two images didn’t strike me as enough meat for which to create a whole new post. So I amended my final post with one of the images and moved along.
And then yesterday happened. We went to my parents’ house for my mother’s birthday, and I started nosing around in her stuff again. I had decided to move on to my great great grandmother– someone I’ve been wanting to write a book about for the last 20 years– when I stumbled upon a golden nugget. Actually, TWO golden nuggets. We found a big box with MORE photographs in it, and as we were going through the ginormous cache of photographs, I picked up a carte de visite and said, “OMG! Who is THIS cutie-pie?” And wouldn’t you know it? I turned one of them over and IT WAS HOT GREAT GRANDPA! I had to laugh. Neither my mom or I knew these two images existed, and how ironic that I would find them at this juncture AND say what I said without knowing WHO was in the image. We laughed hysterically, and a new story began to percolate in my mind.
So, here I am today, posting four more beautiful images of Hot Great Grandpa. Although I wrapped up his biography last week, I had a little more to share before moving along. I suppose that this story has several points to ponder. My scattered thoughts aren’t as laser-focused as they usually are, but hopefully my train of thought is somewhat easy to follow.
n.b A Carte de Visite (CDV) is a form of portrait that was made beginning in the mid 1850s and continued for decades. The small albumen prints were printed from negatives onto thin paper that was mounted to a thick card that often had photographer’s studio information printed on it. The cards were a standard size, so they could be put into a photo album and collected and traded. Cartes de visite were much more economical than their predecessors (the daguerrotype and ambrotype) and they could easily be mailed since they were far less fragile. Duplicates could also be made easily and affordably, so these images are the most common type of portrait from this time period.