According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “an album full of photographs” was first referred to in an 1859 publication, thirty-some years after the invention of photography. It is assumed that prior to 1859 pictures were being stuffed into shoe boxes, envelopes and dresser drawers, as they are today. Refrigerators had not yet been invented, so their doors were unavailable for display purposes. Actually, for most people in the nineteenth century, photographs were regarded as singular objects. The average citizen neither made nor accumulated photographs. It was not until 1888 that George Eastman brought photography to the common man when he introduced the Kodak camera. The term Kodak became so synonymous with photography that Mark Twain, in his letters and travel books such as Along the Equator, wrote of “getting Kodak’d.”
Today it is estimated that 80 billion new digital photographs are taken around the world each year. Most of these images are not making their way onto refrigerators or into shoe boxes, but remain in digital form on computers. In many cases, the images never leave the memory card on which they were recorded. Apparently, for many people the act of posing for a photograph, taking a photograph, and then glancing at it briefly on the camera view screen is more important than possessing a print. Of course, billions of images are alive on what has become the world’s electronic refrigerator door: Flickr, PhotoBucket, Google Albums, MySpace, Facebook and the like. Prior to the Internet era, snapshot and family photography was much more of a private affair. Today, a significant portion of online snapshot images are viewed by complete strangers. It will be interesting in the coming years to see what type of social structure and ritual behavior evolves from this very new juxtaposition of private and public interaction.
The photographs in this brief series were sampled from photo albums kept by my grandfather, Josef Polacek, who immigrated to the United States from Slovakia in 1911. Over the next sixty years he took and cataloged his pictures into two thick albums which were kept in the book case in the front room of the house on 358 East Westfield Avenue in Roselle Park, New Jersey. He lived there with my grandmother, Susan, and my uncle Joe, both of whom you will see in the photos.
My grandfather took the vast majority of the pictures gathered in his albums, all with a Kodak Brownie box camera, which used 620 film. Many of his shots are just a tad soft in focus, probably because of camera shake and the fixed shutter speed of around 1/60th of a second on that particular model. A few of the photographs, including several genuinely excellent compositions, were taken by my mother, Margaret Lowenburg, using at least two different cameras. Another image, the one of my grandfather on the ladder, demonstrates an extraordinary innate sense of geometry and composition on the part of the photographer, and may have been taken by my Uncle Joe, who had remarkable artistic abilities as a self-taught musician.
The inspiration to write about these family photographs comes from John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs (Museum of Modern Art 1973). Szarkowski was for many years the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Through his efforts the works of photographers like Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and my mentor, Larry Fink, came to the public eye. Szarkowski, through his writing, and Fink, through his workshops and conversations over the past twenty years, have taught me the language of photography and I'm grateful.