Nancy Roman

The Family Album

Last year, I wrote that I am among the most patient people in the world. (Just You Wait)

I love traffic jams and long lines at the grocery store.  For me, waiting is permission to be lazy. The plane is late?  Great. I have an excuse to do nothing. It’s not my fault.

But I realized recently that I’m not always patient (and not  just when I have to pee and the traffic isn’t moving).

Last week during dinner with my Mom (Subway this time – she’s such a cheap date), I was using my iPhone to show Mom the latest Facebook pictures of her great-grandchildren.  It was slow going.

“Cripe,” I said – as I never swear in front of my mother – “Facebook takes forever to load.”

But driving home, as I was saying the real swear words I had stifled – (I believe you have to let them out so you don’t explode) – I realized how crazy it is to think that my iPhone was slow.

When I was a little girl,  photography was expensive.  And VERY slow.

You saved up to buy a film. Mostly, you could only afford a 12-exposure film. A film that allowed for 24 shots was cheaper by the print, but  you often couldn’t come up with that kind of up-front cash. And black-and-white of course.  Only a special event called for the expense of color film and color processing.

And you hoarded those 12 pictures.  No taking pictures of nothing.  An “Occasion” only. Which was really a pretty good idea when you think about it. I am not really that interested in what my Facebook friends are having for dinner. (not that I haven’t done that myself of course… but my meals are fascinating….right?)

You’d load that film, carefully threading the beginning of the film through the little sprockets – in the dark of course.  If you missed a sprocket, the film would pop off, and you couldn’t advance the film, and you’d go back to your darkened room to see if you could fix it, which you usually could not.

And you’d wait for a family event and line everyone up, and take ONE picture.  Maybe two, just in case.

Graduation party, 1961.  I am in the front, turned to the side, with a red headband.

Graduation party, 1961. Trying to fit everyone in one shot, and not quite succeeding. I am in the front,distracted by my silly cousins, with a red headband. (And how about the bosoms on those ladies?  Shouldn’t I have inherited some of those genes?)

And using a flash on an indoor shot was even more expensive. And 78% of the time, the flash didn’t work. So you wound the camera back (yeah, you wound the film), and shot over the flash-flop picture , because you didn’t want to waste the frame. What you got was usually a weird surprise. No wonder people believe that ghosts appear in old photos.

Once you took all twelve shots – you usually took thirteen, because something you could squeeze in one more, and you wouldn’t want to waste that, although usually that meant you got half a picture – a few months had often passed by, because you were so stingy about taking out the camera. Sometimes you couldn’t even remember what was on the roll, so much time had gone by.

So you went into your dimly lit room, and carefully took the film off its little sprockets  and wrapped it really tight, and put it in a light-proof box.  And you brought it to the drugstore.

And waited for a week.

Or two.

(Yeah, Facebook photos on your iPhone are SO SLOW.)

Our local drugstore would kindly only charge you for the prints that came out.  But their interpretation of “came out” was very liberal. Your thumb over the lens was still a good picture – of your thumb.  And headless people (which my mother was famous for) still had bodies, didn’t they?

Out of 12 (and a half) pictures, you were lucky if you had three shots where everyone had his eyes open.

And you had no way of knowing ahead of time. You’d open your Kodak envelope right in the drugstore – (yeah, that’s what soda fountains were for) – only to see two headless shots, one thumb shot, four “squinties” (you posed people FACING the sun), three total blinks, one with your brother looking especially dorky, one of your foot, and one half of a shot that would have been perfect – had you not run out of film.

And you kept them all. No delete button.  You put the good ones in an album and the bad ones in a box.  You had a very full box of headless, blinking relatives. And thumbs.

And you kept the negatives too. Envelopes of negatives – none of them labeled.

Today we have lost the value of photography.  We can take 60 shots and toss 59 and just keep the one that looks good. (I do that, of course…just look at my profile picture.)

Old family photos are precious. Expensive and unique, impossible to recreate. There was no going back to that one moment to see if you could get a better shot.  A picture was one second in time, closed eyes and all,  and all the more sweet because of it.

Birthday Party, 1953. I'm the little one in the full length plastic bib, watching the camera, not the cake.

Birthday Party, 1953. I’m the little one in the front, wearing what appears to be a full-length plastic bib, watching the camera, not the cake.


  1. Your post is very timely: I’ve just spent the past few days sorting through old family photos. (My cousin told me I could have them: her brother isn’t interested and she’s in a nursing home.) And there were lots of less than perfect ones that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Oh, and many of the little homespun birthday parties!
    Photography has come SO far!


    • But there was something so sweet about those old imperfect exposures.


  2. Must be the weather! I too, have been sorting old pictures and recalling the negatives we held onto. And how about the old Polaroid shots that fade with time? Love this post!


    • I have some of those old Polaroids – very ghostly….


  3. I’m thinking though that photography is turning full circle. Nowadays everyone takes photographs with their mobile phone, many, many young people don’t own even a point and shoot camera. The result is many pictures out of focus, under/over exposed. But, they don’t care, they keep them all anyway. Post them on FB anyway. It’s sort of future retro 🙂


    • That’s true…. and I never thought about that!


  4. Photos in the past were certainly a more precious commodity than the throwaway attitude we have with digital cameras. Maybe that’s why now we take some ridiculous shots that we never would have dreamed of taking with real film and its inherent costliness.

    I love the photo of you looking at the camera in the bottom shot, and that’s a great frame you’ve put around it, too.


    • That’s not a frame… it’s the little flip-folder that the pictures really came in.


  5. Oh, how it takes me back! I remember my very first camera, a Kodak Brownie, that took only EIGHT pictures. I got it on my eighth birthday. I’ve still got all the pictures I took on it – including my very first colour photos, taken on a family holiday by the sea, in 1965. When school started in September that year, the teacher gave us a project – to write a holiday diary. So I did – and I carefully stuck in the pictures (I think that was the first time they all came out). I’ve still got it – somewhere 🙂


    • Oh Yes! We had a Brownie. And then when I was thirteen, I got my own camera for my birthday – A Brownie Fiesta!


  6. So true, and the albums get put in the loft as there are so many of them. They are never looked at, I think we look at pictures we take more now as we have digital photo frames to show everyone that visits lol x


    • I love taking out the old pictures. I take a few home with me every time I go to my mother’s.


  7. So very true — not only didn’t we “waste a shot” but you developed every pose b/c you couldn’t see them ahead of time! We used to have to take photos of our horses for registration purposes, their markings etc. Mom was famous for cutting off heads. We have photos of horses and my feet, neither head in the shot – hilarious!

    That last photo of the birthday party? Precious memories right there.



    • How about no heads and most of the body off to the left? We have lots of those.
      (And I love that last picture… one of my very favorites)


    • No heads and most of the bodies off to the left AND the camera strap! We’ve got a lot of those!
      (and I love that last photo – one of my very favorites….)


  8. You described this to a T! A few years ago I pitched all the unmarked negatives I had collected over the years. It was hard, though! I can remember the anticipation of waiting for the packet of pictures or finding a used roll of film and waiting to see what was on it! Great memories. Great post.


  9. Susan Ritchie

    Yes, it was slow and the wait seemed forever, especially if you didn’t always finish a roll of film at one time. But the amazing things you can do these days. The family picture that Mom took had a whole lot more of the trees in Aunt Phyllis’s back yard than I showed. I was able to crop most of them out, and center the picture so it look at least half way decent. Mom was also a great one for cutting off your head or feet, and not getting a picture centered, but she loved to take pictures of her family, and I thank God she did. The ones I have found have been priceless.


    • I love that you are sharing them with us. What a treasure.


  10. This reminds me of Louis C.K. segment where he makes fun of people complaining that the wireless connection in an airplane is too slow. I believe he said something like “You’re in fucking space, hurtling through the air at 300 mph.”

    I miss real photographs.


    • Did you see the SNL Sketch about techies complaining about their phones?


  11. I remember those days–except when I became a “photographer” for the newspaper–I took at least four or five shots to make sure I got one–I was trained in journalism not photography–now they barely let me have the camera and I am a happy camper


    • As much as I complain – and as much as I miss the old photographs – I know I am lucky that I can whip out my phone and take a picture of ANYTHING! How cool is that?


  12. I love looking through old photo albums (with ‘real’ pictures in them); the albums my Mom kept for each of us (5) kids are very precious. I took a lot of pictures of my boys when they were little (I had an expensive camera and spent a LOT of money on film and processing); they still love dragging those albums out and going through them. Now I have a digital camera and dozens of photos on my computer that I never look at. Recently I’ve begun moving ‘the best’ ones to a USB drive and taking it into WalMart to get prints made (the fact that these photo printing stations are popping up everywhere says something about how people ‘really’ feel about digital photography). Like everything else ‘pre-technology’, I think we better appreciated photography when it was a little bit difficult and cost a lot of money.


    • We still gather round at my mother’s to look at old pictures.


  13. You brought back such memories for me. I was a budding photographer as a child. Everything but the black and white film speaks to my life experience.


    • I took some “artsy” pictures when I was about fifteen. I would love to see them now!


  14. I bought an old school camera (a Holga) last year because of the interesting effects the guy behind the counter told me I would get and with my first roll of film I was reminded about the expense of processing. And these days, it is more expensive to process black and white than color! What the heck? I love digital because I am cheap and experimental (two of my finer qualities, my husband would say) but there is something special about the the traditional process.


    • I would still like to learn how to develop the old film. Having the films hanging in darkrooms – there’s something romantic about it.


  15. Thanks for the memories, Nancy. Nice to look back. Yep, been there and done that. Nostalgia. Do young people even know the word let alone what it means?

    In the past several weeks, a friend of mine has been shredding old family pictures because there’s only her brother and her left. Ouch. I couldn’t do that.


    • I could never destroy old pictures. I think I would save the old albums first if the house was on fire.


  16. Kravitz

    There is a Camera Shop in my neighbourhood that still sells film and rents out dark rooms for those who know how to develop film strips.
    I walked by yesterday and the chalkboard outside the shop read:
    …but you will be some day.

    I pondered this for quite some time after.


  17. the beginning of your post reminds me of this (in case you haven’t seen it – thought you might be amused):


    • I JUST POSTED THAT FOR SPEAKER7! We are truly sisters!


  18. I’m so glad you took the time to recall the process of taking pictures with film and the anticipation of waiting for the developed photos. My mother (and later, I) were really thrifty. We sent our film, in printed envelopes, to discount developers somewhere in the Midwest. We really had to wait for our photos. But, as soon as they arrived, the wait was forgotten with the thrill of tearing off the envelope flap and reliving memories. And, you’re right: those negatives were never labeled by us. It was hard enough to take the time to write the date of the event on the back of the picture, and to name the people in it. I have boxes of undated pictures and I curse myself for not putting the date on the back. Thanks again for your post.


    • I don’t think I ever once used a negative!


  19. Loved this! I still shoot with film, by the way. Love film, I shoot digital also but still love film.

    When my dad passed I inherited all his pictures and slides, boxes of them going all the way back to the early 1900’s, fascinating stuff. Still sorting them and trying to identify people. This was such a timely and funny post. Loved your pictures.


  20. You made me laugh! My first camera was an old box-camera (literally a 4″ cube that pre-dated the Brownie) that nobody else wanted anymore. And we lived out in the boonies, so once those twelve (or thirteen) precious frames had been exposed, we wrapped the film up and mailed it away to be processed. A few weeks later, we got our photos. Now I have a digital camera in my phone, and I almost never take pictures. Go figure.


  21. I would give anything to have those old photos. Ours were pretty much all lost in a flood the year before my Mom died. Every once in a while someone will say, “Oh, I found this old photo of your Mom, I will scan it and send it to you.” They are golden bits and pieces of treasure for me. I’m really grateful people didn’t throw out those headless, blinking, squinting shots.


  22. Oh I love those old shots with the rippled edges — and Nancy you really haven’t changed a whole lot.

    I think it’s time for me to open some of those boxes filled with treasures and negatives.


  23. What a lovely post, I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks!



  1. No Pictures Please | notquiteold

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