Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas


June 26, 2010

Old pictures require imagination

Corsicana — I adore old photos. You know the ones, black and white, typically in some long-gone studio with formal poses and stern faces.

Someone once told me the people were to not smile because the shutter speeds were so slow that if their expression changed the face would blur. I like to think that’s true. Otherwise, these were some grim folks.

 When my grandfather’s aunt died at 102 we inherited a whole slew of her old photo albums. Unfortunately, she didn’t bother to put names with any of these marvelous faces. Sometimes, the back will say simply “me” as if that’s enough.

My great-great aunt didn’t bother to label them because the faces were so familiar to her that she probably thought it was unnecessary. Three generations later, however, and they’re all just images, no longer real people. We keep them in a brown paper bag.

When I moved out and got my first apartment I bought some fancy frames at a garage sale and went through her old pictures to pull out some favorites with which to decorate my new place.

People who notice these small pictures usually zero in on the Guy with a Curl. The photo is of a guy standing alone in the studio. He has done his hair up in a kind of Kewpie doll curl, but he took the advice not to smile so much to heart that he’s almost scowling.

It’s as if he knew that one day some insubordinate woman who didn’t know how important he was would find that picture and use it as a whimsical decoration. If he knew, why didn’t he try to do something with his hair?

Because my family has always been Dog People, the bag is also full of people with their dogs, babies with dogs, and dogs alone, and I can certainly sympathize with those. I can remember shooting dozens of rolls of film of dog pictures, trying to catch that elusive expression that only pops up on canine faces at 3 a.m., when you’re groggy and the dog seems just about to tell you why they chew up socks, and what coyotes are saying in the night. It can never be caught in the daytime, and certainly not on film.

Dogs are secretive that way, and most dog photos are just pictures of critters, like pictures of people are just faces if you don’t know the person.

But sometimes you can read a whole story into those old photos, which is why my favorite of all is the Horizontal Couple. I still smile every time I look at them. The photo probably dates from the late 1800s or early 1900s. She’s in a long dark dress. He’s in a suit. The first thing anyone notices about this photo are his ears. These are massive-sticking-straight-out-from-his-head ears. Ears that probably required him to have a special casket, and forget any hat that wasn’t custom-made. These are the kind of ears that would make Barack Obama say “Wow, look at the wings on THAT guy.”

But I don’t laugh when I look at this photo. On the contrary, it makes me sigh and smile because the young woman has done up her hair so that she has twin buns on either side of her head, easily 90 years before Princess Leia made the style famous. And I think to myself “she was trying to make him look normal.”

On its surface this is a hilarious photo, but to me it’s an image of true love.


Janet Jacobs is a Daily Sun staff writer. Her column appears on Sundays. She may be reached via e-mail at Want to “Soundoff” on this column? E-mail:

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