Thoughts on Photographs – Vintage and Modern

A lot of my time on any vintage shopping excursion is devoted to looking through stacks of vintage photographs.   I just can’t think of a better way to study how people actually dressed than to examine the photos of an era.  I guess it would be even better if they were all in color.

I’ve noticed that I rarely see photos younger than the early 1970s.  I’m thinking that newer photos are still in the possession of their original owners, but that as time passes and the owners die, treasures from the 1970s through the 1990s will hit the market.

It has occurred to me that these wonderfully old candid snapshots are pretty much a thing of the past.  With digital photography we take and retake an image until it is “perfect.”  We arrange not only ourselves, but also our belongings in photographs.  What we have lost is a sense of spontaneity in our photos.

I know that many history and museum people object to the use of the word “curate” outside of a museum setting, but it does aptly describe how people take photos in the digital age.  I’m not saying that photo “curation” is somehow wrong; I’m saying that it is leaving a false record of how our lives actually look.

Another disturbing thought is that many photos taken today are never seen outside of the virtual world.  Out of the thousands of photos I take in any year, I might actually print a hundred or so of them.  I doubt that anyone prints all the photos they take these days.

Of course the trade-off is that there are so many photos digitized and shared today that the  internet is a virtual photo album of the grandest sort.  More and more people and institutions are digitizing collections so they can be shared online.  We have access to photos of the past – and present – like never before.  That said, I don’t think anything can replace the fun of a good shuffle through a stack of vintage black and whites.

Here are two more photos from the Sophie in Miami set.  In the top photo Sophie is on the left, next to yet another man identified only as Sy.  That’s him in the bottom photo, with his arms around Betty of the fantastic shoes, so he was probably not one of Sophie’s conquests.


Filed under Viewpoint, Vintage Photographs

11 responses to “Thoughts on Photographs – Vintage and Modern

  1. I, too, love to look at old photos — anybody’s old photos! Estate sales are a sad but likely place to find them. What bothers me most about digital photos is that there will never be any writing on the back for someone to find eighty years later. We’re lucky to have seen a long period between tintypes and images on glass, which couldn’t be written on, and the digital age, when the ID may get separated from the image again. Documenting that century and a half, we have photos printed on paper, which allowed people to record information (including full names, places, and dates) on the back and send physical copies of the pictures to friends and family. Imagine how much history of daily life was lost when boxes of family photos were converted to videotapes.


  2. recently while trying to sort thru my Mothers’ albums / boxes of vintage photos of fashion shows (late 40’s-50’s-70’s she was a model) and shots of coctail parties,etc. i decided to keep all of them…a real “time capsule” of fashion,etc. that will always be a source of reference and more than just personal memories. ..what great reference material!? I just found a Claire McCardel dress and a photo of her in it…!


  3. You are completely right. I never gave much thought to that, but you are right. There is a loss to candidness with the digital age, but the trade off is often a greater number of photos that capture a moment.

    Regarding printing photos, I too rarely print these days. Mainly because it is such a pain. Between deciding to calibrate the printer at home, which can often not offer the best quality, or battling machines at places like Target or Fed-Ex Office and paying for it. I used to love scrapbooking, but haven’t done so since I was a senior in high school! And now I feel like that is becoming a lost “art”. But I agree, with digital, more photos are shared, and often more will see them than with print.


  4. Interesting musings. I agree that many people present the person they want others to think they are. (As a former museum curator, i don’t have a problem with the term “curate” outside a museum setting :)) Although I don’t print photos nowadays, I do like having a photo as an object to hold — much like I prefer handling and listening to vinyl records and viewing album artwork and reading liner notes to listening to digital music. And I’ve noticed that there’s a liberal use of photo editing software on some of the blogs I follow–wrinkles erased and who knows what else, in a few keystrokes!
    I also agree that the loss of documentation is sad. I have a collection vintage dog photos and treasure the writing on the back (i.e. “Saskia – died 1945” or the little puppy named “Bingo”). In the future, we’re just going to have a bunch of photos floating out there on the internet with no idea who is in the photos or what is happening.


    • It is so easy for digital photos to “lose” any background or information that is posted with them online. Photos are posted on sites like flickr, where many people are very good about including any information, but after they are filtered through tumblr and pinterest and who knows where else, all of the photo’s history has fallen by the wayside.


  5. As a searcher for old photos, I have also noticed that it is much easier to find images from the fifties than the seventies, and really hard to find anything after that. What will happen to future historians, who won’t have photos or letters to sort through? If our digital musing and images survive (and they may not) they might end up with too much information, rather than too little.


    • I already find the sheer volume of certain kinds of digital information to be overwhelming. There is no way I can read all the vintage blogs that are being put online, and forget about modern fashion. It’s too much!


  6. Mod Betty’s 2 cents worth – While I confess to curating my own photos – both printed and digital, my reason for doing so is to have whatever visual legacy is left behind is something that I feel represents who I really am or who I hope to be.

    I know from personal experience how easy it is to look AWFUL in a photo. And I think back to previous generations of my family where if you’re lucky there’s 2-3 snapshots of them at a young age. Heaven forbid you looked like a witch in one of those photos, that’s how future generations might think of you! or with your eyes half closed because of the flash?

    I will say – having only seen bad photos of myself for so long in my life, the ability to see more photos, and see where I can improve so they look better to me, makes me happier about myself in front of the camera in general. So I think there’s some good in the fact that we’ve got a lot of photos nowadays, and I have no problem shredding ones that make me feel bad about myself – life is too short!


    • Given the ability to edit one’s appearance, I’d say that most of us do it. Why post a poor photo if there is a nicer one? And I’m sure that many photos taken in the past did not make it past the developer’s trashcan! I can remember my mother getting newly developed packs of photos and sneaking out the ones she did not want others to see. And that included most of the photos of her.


  7. what a timely post: My sister is in the middle of huge project scanning the best of the many boxes of colored slides that my dad shot from the early 60’s through the late 90’s. Dad printed up very few, so it feels like we are viewing these for the first time. I know that dad wasn’t alone in making the transition over to colored slides in the 60’s, and I would guess that is why there are ‘missing’ decades in a photo search today. So far I’ve seen Rudi Gernreich, Davidow and Bonnie Cashin among others worn in the photos, outnumbered by jeans over those decades of course!


  8. Jo

    This seemed apropos to the discussion.
    From Google’s vice president: “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”


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