All through August, relatives and friends have posted on Facebook back-to-school pictures of their children. From preschoolers to college students, I saw smiling faces, hands clutching backpacks and lunchboxes, new clothes in new sizes, and dorm rooms – along with signs indicating grade or school. Such photos have become a ritual of summer’s end, an annual tradition, another way to mark the fleeting time of childhood.
Before telephones contained cameras and Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up Facebook, my siblings might have snapped first-day pictures and pasted them in scrapbooks or just left them in their drugstore packages. I remember no photographs of my sisters and me on our long-ago Tuesdays after Labor Day. We were lucky to get down the lane in time to board the waiting bus. With one tiny bathroom for four or five girls, there was never time in the morning to memorialize the Scott girls on film – even on the first day of school.
In the six decades before my birth, photography inevitably evolved, with changes continuing in the 60 years since. Almost every Boomer has a box or an album somewhere that contains sepia-toned photos of family ancestors, stiffly posed, with solemn faces not directly facing the camera. In my living room stands a framed picture of my parents and my year-old self in a more natural pose; the formal studio photograph is tinted in pale colors over the original black-and-white tones.
Growing up, we appeared in snapshots, mostly black-and-white ones: in the dresses we wore on a Sunday to the county fair in the mid 50’s, with our version of Frosty the Snowman, as a sibling group at the annual Christmas get-together, with a baby calf or Janie, the lamb.
Several pictures – the last day with my very long tresses before the first-grade haircut, the early spring shot of a sister who had been ill all winter, another sister wearing a sailor hat tilted at a jaunty angle, the baby sister in a porch swing, our parents on their trip to the Smoky Mountains – were stapled into glossy green or yellow folders now curled by the passage of time.
Oddly, I cannot really remember my parents taking these photos. My father kept a Brownie camera on top of a kitchen cupboard on River Road. I recall Mother pasting enough trading stamps into little books to redeem for a more modern camera complete with flashbulb holder and light brown carrying case. Actual photo sessions, however, occurred much less frequently than is currently the practice.
In the 1960’s a big change in camera equipment also ushered in a different type of photograph. Somewhere along the line I owned a “nice” camera, but loading it with 35mm film and calculating f-stops proved difficult for me. I mean, the GHS students next door in John Zeilman’s art classes were light years ahead of me with their self-made pinhole cameras.
What I needed was the Kodak Instamatic, a camera much smarter than I. It was simple to use: I could drop a film cartridge into the back of the camera, attach an automatically-rotating flash cube, point and click. I snapped pictures of my first trip to Germany in 1969 with my trusty little Kodak, the only camera I ever used successfully.
My lack of skill notwithstanding, every year my students expected me to photograph them before various European landmarks and in our partner school courtyard: GHS exchange kids posed in group formation while I aimed camera after camera pulled from the jumble they had piled at my feet.
Another exchange tradition was our trip through East Germany enroute to West Berlin. Despite repeated warnings to the contrary, one of my charges snapped an unauthorized photo – with flash – of the security guard who had just boarded the bus to check passports. The 45 minutes the offender spent in a detention area seemed interminable as visions of losing a student to a communist prison flashed through my head. The wayward photographer finally reboarded the bus – film hanging from his camera – perhaps a bit wiser about communist regulations.
All photos were eventually in color, as the wait time for development shrank from a few days down to 24 hours and finally one-hour service. We could even drop off film at drive-up Fotomat kiosks in any mall parking lot. There was always the enjoyment of shuffling through a pile of freshly-developed pictures or passing them around a circle of friends or family.
Everything photographic continues to change in the most radical of ways. Years ago, I am not sure I could have ever entertained the notion that phones would one day be cordless, portable, and camera-equipped. For my eight-month-old grandniece, Brownie cameras and Instamatics, along with rotary phones, will be unrecognizable relics from another century. Some of us print out copies of our photos, but most modern folks store hundreds of pictures in their computers or in a cloud somewhere. And special camera effects allow us to once again enjoy photos in vintage-evoking tones of black-and-white or sepia.
People nowadays show off their latest photos on tablets or smartphones; and Facebook, along with other social media outlets, has become our shared photo gallery for first-day-of-school pictures and more. I must wonder how the children of my grandniece will be taking pictures and sharing them with her six more decades from now. Somehow, I cannot picture it…
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976 to 2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn- Gymnasium in Springe.