Vintage photography...curious about other people's views

Jim Walczak

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Ok...please forgive me if I get a tad philosophical or nostalgic here...this just seems like it would be an interesting topic for discussion and I'd be interested to hear other people's opinions. Also please keep in mind that I'm something of an oddball (for those who haven't read any of my comments/threads) and I do often have some rather unconventional views...in other words, don't take my comments too seriously. Please bear with me...this could get a bit weird! LOL!

Alrighty...this may sound kind of weird, but as a photographer who also happens to be an art lover, in recent years I've found myself studying (for lack of a better word) a lot of vintage photographs that I often see in places like restaurants or fast food chains. I will admit here that I do have a strong appreciation for nostalgia...I -LOVE- looking at images from bygone eras. Even before I started taking my own photography seriously (let alone considered it as something of a business), I often found myself looking at old pictures of, say amusement parks. Having grown up a native Ohio resident, there are a couple of long defunct amusement parks...older Ohio residents may remember the names "Euclid Beach", "Chippewa Lake" or even the more recently defunct "Geauga Lake". I have always found myself rather fascinated by images of these places. Even as a young kid, my family would go to Cedar Point (which MANY may have heard of) and stand around in their Town Hall, gazing at pictures of the park dating back as far as the late 1800's. And this doesn't apply to JUST amusement parks...I seem to have a fascination with old photos in general. I even have a really old shot of a couple standing in from of a car that I found in an OLD camera case I purchased at a thrift store. For all intensive purposes, it's just a snap shot and judging by the car in the background (not to mention the photo paper used) I'd put the image around the late 30's, early 40's. The picture is well framed, properly exposed, sharp, etc., however it's not really anything spectacular...it's just a couple standing in a driveway in front of a car, but I often find myself just staring at that shot. Something about that shot just captivates my attention whenever I look at it. I honestly can't say -why- such images have always fascinated me, only that they do.

Ok...reminiscent tangent aside....again been looking at a lot of images lately that I see in a lot of restaurants (I said this was gonna get weird, LOL). I'm talking about places like McD's, Dairy Queen, Waffle House, etc., etc.. In some cases, such as DQ and Waffle House, many of the pics are often little more than historic shots of the chains themselves...a local DQ for example has a fair number of pictures of various DQ's throughout the years, dating back to the company's establishment in the late 30's, with franchises that came about in the mid 40's and 50's. Again I can't say why exactly, but such images really seem to hold my attention. Some of the images are in fact quite interesting...a local Quizno's for example has a framed shot of a couple of guys on a ladder, loading some REALLY BIG rolls of cheese onto shelves for "aging"(and I mean BIG...talkin' rolls of mozzarella that look to be a good 6 feet wide!)...it's actually a rather fascinating image to look at. Likewise a local McD's had a shot of a couple on a motor scooter...it really has NOTHING to do with McD's, or even hamburgers, but it's a fun shot. That said however, not all such shots are really great...many are rather mundane and a few a pretty bad.

This is where we get to the point of this little ramble of mine...in another thread here on TPF, a user had posted a link to some vintage surfing photography, specifically "LeRoy Grannis. Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s" (here's the link). The first shot that came up was a wide shot of a beach...cars in the foreground, a few people on the beach in the mid ground and lots of surfers riding the waved in the background. On the one hand, I -really- love that image...it has a lot of visual interest for me (particularly with the vintage cars in the foreground...love that old Woodie down front there and the old VW "Bugs"!) and the rather subdued colors give it that "vintage feel"...I really stared at that shot for quite a while, which of course, is what good photography is all about. ON THE OTHER HAND, it also got me to thinking...always a dangerous thing...if I were to shoot such an image myself today, in all likelihood....I'd probably delete it. As a vintage photo, it has a great deal of appeal to me, however if this were shot in a contemporary setting, I would probably find myself wondering exactly what the point of such a shot is. Does that make sense??

This got me to thinking about a lot of other historic photos I've seen...for example a number of shots I was looking at earlier this summer at the Mohican Museum in Loudonville Ohio, where they built those old Flxible buses. Again in terms of vintage photography, many of the images they had displayed had a great deal of appeal to me and I spent a fair amount of time just studying them, however from the view point of a contemporary digital photographer, if I were to shoot such images myself, I'd probably delete them thinking there was little point or perhaps that they lacked my personal sense of artistic flair (LOL). I guess this leads me to a few questions...

How many people out there do have a similar taste for old/vintage photography such as I've described here...and can you explain why? What's the appeal? I can't really explain my own fascination, so I'm curious if others have worked it out....

For those who do have such an appreciation, what do you think would create such an appeal with a vintage shot, that would be equally unappealing with more contemporary work? Is it just the "sense of history" or is there something more refined or subtle?



I don't think there's any real right or wrong here...I'm just curious about the views and opinions of others on this one...and sorry that got so long, but I wanted to give folks a proper frame of reference (slight pun intended).

I look forward to the responses!
 

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I think for many of us we are more fascinated by the subject than looking at the photographs objectively.

In the cover shot you referenced, he captured the foreground, the middle ground, and the background, and also framed a group of surfers up and riding. Aside from that, it is mostly just a record shot of a day at the beach.

These days when someone says; "nothing special here" we often will delete that image or at least won't show it around. Digital is quick and cheap, so throw away the mundane and hope for a few keepers.

In the film days, we had more invested in the photograph to begin with, so we tended to keep more of them.
 

gsgary

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I'm always looking at old shots new digital shots hold no interest for me, my friend has taken lots of shots like you mention from the 60s to today which he calls record shots he shows them when our film group gets together once a month. He used to live in a place called Stoke which is very famous for pottery when he started taking shots of Stoke there was bottle kilns everywhere the shots he showed us last time there was probably only 3
 

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I've read a couple articles that suggest digital photography does not help us see a realistic representation of the era because so,so many people delete any and all substandard images, leaving only the "selects". The idea goes that in the future, digital archives will show us a highly filtered, unrealistic, highly curated interpretation of reality.

Old photos do somehow seem to possess an aura, a certain something, that makes them seem interesting, even if the subject matter or the scenes are rather mundane. I'm not sure why that is so, but I've noticed that historical photos are fascinating, both to me, and to my friends.
 

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I came in possession of a bunch of very old photos, most are of my near and distant relatives and mostly damaged. Fun and interesting to do the repairs with Photoshop but the content is what I find fascinating. The clothing on the people is different and the "things" in the background have a very different look to them. Folks look like they're having fun and not a cellphone or laptop anywhere to be seen..............
 

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I think for me, looking at vintage photos is almost like the closest humanity will ever get to time travel. We don't get to see the future (until it's the present, anyway ;) ) but we do get to see the past, and sometimes really far into the past. It may be an image of a time and a place that I'll never personally experience but that I still get to witness, and that makes me feel connected to a larger sense of humanity and the world. And maybe I like taking photos that have a vintage look probably because I tend to feel nostalgia even for the moments that aren't past yet, so even when I'm taking the shot, it feels like I'm already imagining it as a moment in the past. I dunno, maybe it's a Portuguese thing. We've got one of those "untranslatable" words for this feeling: saudade.

Funny you mention old photos of fast food places and diners :) One of the last remaining Howard Johnson restaurants in the entire country. (Lake George, NY). Taken earlier this year with a Polaroid Land Camera. I know it's a technically flawed picture, but I still love it.

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gsgary

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Here's some of my vintage photo collection, i was given a box full of 5x4 glass plates after scanning them i realise they are from the town where i live and one of them could be of a famous snooker player when he was a young lad

Glass%20plate%201-XL.jpg


Glass%20plate%208-XL.jpg


Glass%20plate%209-XL.jpg


Glass%20plate%2013-XL.jpg


And what it looks like today

Glass%20plate%2090%20yeqrs%20on3-XL.jpg
 
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Jim Walczak

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I've read a couple articles that suggest digital photography does not help us see a realistic representation of the era because so,so many people delete any and all substandard images, leaving only the "selects". The idea goes that in the future, digital archives will show us a highly filtered, unrealistic, highly curated interpretation of reality.

Old photos do somehow seem to possess an aura, a certain something, that makes them seem interesting, even if the subject matter or the scenes are rather mundane. I'm not sure why that is so, but I've noticed that historical photos are fascinating, both to me, and to my friends.



Hhmmm. I think what you and Designer are essentially saying is that digital photography has not only changed how we take pictures (a great many of us at least), but how we think about photography as well...and yea, I think that makes sense. In the "old days"...back in my mid to late teens when I started getting into 35mm, I (usually) worked thru a local lab at the time and even into the early/mid 90's I was still shooting film (like most of us) and basically I payed for prints of ALL my shots, whether I shot 1 roll or 20. I did some blow ups of the good shots (like the shots of the pyramid at Chichin Itza when my wife and I went to Cancun for our honeymoon), but whether it was a really great shot or not, I kept everything. Today, yes...I do certainly blow a few shots right off the camera, long before they make it to the computer, let alone to prints.

It's kind of interesting as again, I do find many of those older shots rather interesting, if not quite interguing...shots that again, if I were to capture myself today, I would likely delete. Do you (or Designer) think that suggests more people take photography a bit more seriously today...or is it perhaps just a byproduct of the technology? One of my former college professors (and still a good friend) is a big believer in the concept that with every great advance in technology, there's always a few draw backs as well...the invention of the automobile being a prime example. Cars are GREAT transportation for many people, however with the invention of cars also came issues with pollution and even the idea that we humans don't exersize the way our ancestors did when they had to walk everywhere. Likewise with "art" (as in the classical art from the "masters"), he suggested that perhaps we've lost the concept of an original piece of art work and the concept of a specific piece of art work being created to be displayed in a specific given space (i.e. Caravaggio's that were intended for display in a specific space in a church). Could this perhaps be a byproduct of digital photography...the loss of this historic reference/record/snapshot? An interesting thought on its own.....
 
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Jim Walczak

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I came in possession of a bunch of very old photos, most are of my near and distant relatives and mostly damaged. Fun and interesting to do the repairs with Photoshop but the content is what I find fascinating. The clothing on the people is different and the "things" in the background have a very different look to them. Folks look like they're having fun and not a cellphone or laptop anywhere to be seen..............


Like yourself I also do Photoshop "restorations" and a couple years back I came into possession of a rather sizable collection of family photos after my father passed away...in fact I had to sit down with one of my Aunts to go thru them and identify who was in the shots, as no one in my immediate family had ANY clue (my Aunt Jewel is 93 and the oldest surviving member of the family on my mother's side so she knew about 90% of the images). From a family point of view, it was...ummm....rather "educational"...I -never- would have considered my mother as a 40's "pin up girl", LOL!!!! Wow...there are some things that even a 50 year old kid should never know about his parents!!! There was also one really sensational portrait of another Aunt that had actually been hand colored...another shot that I've studied rather extensively since coming into my possession. At some point I'm going to assemble all the shots as a single album or catalog, along with all the info referenced so I can pass it down to my grand niece.
 
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Jim Walczak

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Funny you mention old photos of fast food places and diners :) One of the last remaining Howard Johnson restaurants in the entire country. (Lake George, NY). Taken earlier this year with a Polaroid Land Camera. I know it's a technically flawed picture, but I still love it.

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HoJo's!!! Ya know, I never actually stayed at one, however there is a rather sentimental story here (and maybe that's part of what "old pictures" are all about...the stories they tell and bring to mind). The 2nd band I was in back in my late teens (and the very first time I was ever on stage as a musician) actually came about as the drummer worked with a guitar player...at a Howard Johnson's. Here 30+ years later, the guitar player, George Sayer, is still a very dear friend (even though he moved to Luxembourg many years ago). Funny how you can associate a long friendship with something like a HoJo's.

Reminiscences aside, I think your comment "I know it's a technically flawed picture, but..."..I think that get's to the heart of some of this. You said it was taken earlier this year (where on Earth did you find film for a Landcamera???? I thought they stopped making that stuff ages ago...), but you felt the need to apologize for it's technical short comings. Perhaps this is just a speculative opinion, but I think that if most average people (with a Landcamera) had of taken that some 30 or 40 odd years ago, they probably wouldn't have thought too much about the technical aspect of the shot...today however we feel some need to quantify such a shot. It's rather interesting how our opinions and attitudes towards photography have changed over the years.

...and yea...I love that shot too!


BTW...ya know I actually just tossed out my Dad's old Polaroid cameras a couple years back when Dad died...he had a Landcamera and some kind of "Instamatic" or something (not to mention an old Kodak "disk camera" and a few others...never did find his medium format though...THAT I would have kept). I figured I wouldn't be able to find film for them and with my digitals, probably wouldn't have used them even if I did.


This is turning out to be an really interesting topic...it's making me re-evaluate some of my own thoughts about photography as a concept.
 

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My Mom gave me a box of old negatives that I've been scanning. They're pretty much all family photos (thus far).

Technically, they're disasters. But, and the family connection aside, they offer a glimpse into how things were back then (apparently, my Uncle Ray always wore a tie), and I think that's kind of cool.
 

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Do you (or Designer) think that suggests more people take photography a bit more seriously today...or is it perhaps just a byproduct of the technology?
With more people owning and using "cameras" in the digital age, I think people are swamped with photographic images, and do not hold any of them in high regard, even though some are fabulous.
 

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Reminiscences aside, I think your comment "I know it's a technically flawed picture, but..."..I think that get's to the heart of some of this. You said it was taken earlier this year (where on Earth did you find film for a Landcamera???? I thought they stopped making that stuff ages ago...), but you felt the need to apologize for it's technical short comings. Perhaps this is just a speculative opinion, but I think that if most average people (with a Landcamera) had of taken that some 30 or 40 odd years ago, they probably wouldn't have thought too much about the technical aspect of the shot...today however we feel some need to quantify such a shot. It's rather interesting how our opinions and attitudes towards photography have changed over the years.

...and yea...I love that shot too!

First, thanks :) Second, Polaroid stopped making film but Fujifilm still makes peel-apart pack film for Land Cameras. They recently discontinued their black and white (which is a shame because it's a beautiful film) but their color emulsion seems to be going pretty strong. I have a stash of the black and white and buy a pack of the remaining stock when I can, and I do quite a bit with the color as well. The camera belonged to my father. He bought it in 1965 and you'd have to pry that thing out of my cold dead hands to ever get me to give it up :)

Finally, I do think you're right that most people wouldn't have cared about the technical aspects too much. I think their modern-day counterparts, however, aren't those of us interested in photography and trying for technically and/or artistically good photos. Instead, there are millions of people taking snaps on their phones now, and they're not really worried about technical aspects either, but they are holding devices that allow them to take a ton of shots until they finally get one that's "good enough" - everyone has their eyes open, no one has derp face, light isn't too dark or light... Today's technology allows photos to be more technically perfect without paying for each shot, and so I think that is what people have become concerned with. Digital cameras and editing software can take "perfect" images now and perhaps technical flaws now look like incompetence instead of gear limitations or artistic choice.

What it comes down to for me is that I don't care about "perfect" pictures. It does look like I was apologizing for the technical flaws of the photo, but I didn't really mean to apologize - just recognize that I took the picture knowing full well that it wouldn't pass muster with some because of the technical flaws, but not caring about that because I wanted a picture that looked like that. I love it because of how it looks. To be perfectly honest, many of today's smooth, super sharp, vivid color photography leaves me cold because I don't take pictures to get a "perfect" image but rather to capture a feeling and a moment. I think more vintage photographs were similar - photos were expensive and many people didn't know much about cameras but they still took them out when it mattered: special events or happy moments or unusual moments, and if the photo was flawed, so what? The picture was flawed but still meaningful enough to save. I guess those moments and those flawed photographs feel more real to me than today's super-manipulated, technically perfect images that are so easy to take and produce that it's almost meaningless. And I guess that has influenced my own work in a way that I don't think I would have realized without this thread, so thanks for starting it! :)
 

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A comment on the fascination of these old photos.
Here's a sample of the before, on the left, taken in 1919 and the after, on the right, with just a touch of PS.
The clothes and the little lace up boots with happy smiling kids in an alley just a block behind the Library of Congress in 1919. Looks like perhaps a rain barrel? You see new details every time you look at shots like this.
Before-and-after---Bob---4-and-Anna--2.jpg
 

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A comment on the fascination of these old photos.
Here's a sample of the before, on the left, taken in 1919 and the after, on the right, with just a touch of PS.
The clothes and the little lace up boots with happy smiling kids in an alley just a block behind the Library of Congress in 1919. Looks like perhaps a rain barrel? You see new details every time you look at shots like this.View attachment 111212
I much prefer the original, in the original there is a connection between photographer and subject
 

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