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Old Negatives

I found a box…well, I must admit, it wasn’t lost…it had been sitting on my desk for a very long time. I knew it was a box of “things” rescued from my mom’s desk when we cleaned out the old homeplace. I don’t know why I had been avoiding it, but there it was and this week I decided to deal with it.

I think I avoided it because I knew what would happen…and I was right…I got lost. Lost in a time long gone, lost in trying to identify people I had never known, places that lived in only the briefest of my  memories of Mom’s stories.

My grandfather was an amateur photographer. In a time when a camera was a wondrous bit of magic he owned a twin lens reflex camera. He wasn’t making art or trying to capture history, he was just trying to preserve a bit of his life.

That’s what I found in the box, snapshots of life. There were studio portraits of people I did not know, and clippings a couple of postcards, but the treasure trove proved to be three crumbling brown envelopes full of negatives.

Smith & Smith Photographers of Mitchell, Indiana, in their Kodak Finishing Department (our motto: “Speed and Quality”) had developed my grandfather’s films for him at a cost of 10 cents a roll and 5 cents per print. I don’t know what happened to the prints, but here were the negatives and I wondered what they would show.

I have some experience with computers, scanners and photo software, so I stumbled around and discovered a way to use my scanner to “develop” the negatives into images on the computer screen.

That’s when I got lost in the past.

There was my mother and her sisters, in the front yard of the house I only knew from stories. There were babies playing on blankets in the grass. There was my Aunt Lena, very young and standing beside a young man who may have been a beau, but certainly wasn’t my Uncle Clarence.

There was my young grandfather, strong and muscular and very much in command of a motorized grader that featured three steering wheels and gears and levers. My mom worshipped her “daddy” and I got the impression she believed he could do anything…maybe she was right. I knew he made or worked on shoes and harness, built furniture, operated a camera somewhat competently, was a traveling preacher, a writer and musician. Apparently, he also operated heavy equipment.

The vast majority of the photos were of young people in groups of two or three or four, smiling at the camera or trying on serious grown up looks. Young ladies stood with hands on hips, a man’s hat cocked comically on their heads. Two youths dressed in overalls stood in front of some sort of out of focus plant life that might have been berry bushes or maybe fruit trees.

By the time I finished scanning these negatives, studying them for the clothing of the time, the surrounding countryside, searching the faces for some feature I could recognize to identify people I had only known as adults…by that time, I felt almost a part of their world. It was a little unsettling when I finished with the negatives and felt myself tumbling back into my own world of pandemics and civil unrest.

I believe the majority of these photos, especially the ones of the young men and women, were taken in the mid-1930’s. Were the times better back then? Were these people happier then? I couldn’t fail to see how thin they all were. They stood for the camera in clothes that were their everyday uniforms with worn or torn knees or slightly ragged cuffs. When they were dressed in their best it was clear they were ready for some event, but I liked seeing the more casual clothing, the young men with rolled up sleeves and the girls with their stockings and worn, flat shoes.

In just a few years, all these young men went off to wars. They may or may not have come home. If they didn’t grow old, they certainly grew up. The young ladies had careers or they didn’t, they married happily or unhappily and had children who turned out okay or didn’t.

They all lived lives they could not fathom as they stood for my grandfather’s camera and smiled and became part of my story.


  1. Irma Robertson

    So enjoyed your blog!

    • Donna Nicholas

      Thank you!

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