Stick it in your family album

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Old Father Thames

All lined up in a wedding group, here we are for a photograph.
We’re all dressed up in our morning suits all trying not to laugh.
Since the early caveman in his fur took a trip to Gretna Green.
There’s always been a photographer to record the happy scene.
Hold it! Flash, bang, wallop! What a picture! Click! What a picture! What a photograph!
Poor old bloke, blimey what a joke. Hat blown off in a cloud of smoke.
Clap hands! Stamp your feet! Bangin’ on the big bass drum! What a picture! What a picture!
Rum tiddley um bum, bum, bum, bum.
Stick it in your family album!

From the 1963 musical Half a Sixpence (music and lyrics by David Heneker)

Since Tower Bridge opened in 1894 (the opening ceremony is pictured above) it must have been the subject of millions of tourist snapshots. I was reflecting on that as we approached the iconic bridge on a Thames riverboat trip to Greenwich. At that moment a large number of fellow passengers seated in the outside area were suddenly on their feet – mobile phones at the ready – as they framed the perfect shot.

I’ve done it myself more than once over the years, but surely there’s a limit to how many pictures of Tower Bridge a person needs. And visually it’s hardly changed since 1894.

But it’s so easy to take a photo with your phone or digital camera. I probably have thousands of images of my grandchildren, including movies of them growing up. Once upon a time most people would have had at best a handful of photos of themselves. Many would only have ever had one photograph taken. In the years from 1914 to 1918 thousands of young men posed for their first and last photograph, proudly wearing their new uniforms before they set off on their one-way journey for the Western Front.

There are very few surviving photographs of me as a small child. That can partly be explained by the way – as a service family – we moved every couple of years to a different RAF station and things get lost, left behind, mislaid. It’s much the same for my younger siblings. But few people will have a substantial pictorial record of themselves in the years before the digital age. You simply took far fewer photographs when you had to buy film then pay for processing and wait for them to come back. You had no idea whether the picture had come out, and often a film sat in a camera for months until you’d finished the limited number of shots allowed to you.

There were other perils – like taking one film out and then accidentally putting the exposed reel back in the camera giving you a wonderful collection of double exposures. Or a completed roll of film might get jammed when you were winding it back and the only way to get it out was to open the back of the camera. That would generally expose much of the film with light and ruin your precious pictures.

And yes, dear reader, it happened to me when for that reason we lost a once in a lifetime photograph of our younger daughter Rosie (christened Rosalind after the character in As you Like It) standing next to a young Juliet Stevenson backstage at the RSC in Stratford while she was playing Rosalind with Alan Rickman as Jacques. But actually Rosie (who must have five or six) remembers the event with absolute clarity without the aid of a probably blurry photo taken on a cheap Instamatic camera.

Because when I look at photos taken not long before the brave new digital world dawned they rarely lived up to expectations. At the end of the 1960s my late father-in-law took dozens of rolls of film, producing hundreds of slides while he and the family were based in Washington DC including a large batch taken on a road trip to San Francisco and back. The landscapes in particular of places like Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon look muddy and unimpressive compared to those we took with our phones fifty years later.

He also took few pictures of people which is where the real attraction of looking at pictures from the past lies. Although what future generation is really going to want to see a thousand selfies of their grandfather gurning in front of the Taj Mahal, or the Mona Lisa, or Niagara Falls?

Two Selfies
Two early selfies

It must be acknowledged that the selfie has a history which goes back a long way. Almost certainly the first one (above left) was taken by Robert Cornelius, an amateur chemist and photography enthusiast from Philadelphia. He captured the self-portrait outside in natural light with a ‘camera’ which was essentially a box fitted with a lens from an opera glass. On the back of the photographic plate he wrote ‘The first light picture ever taken. 1839.’ That was less than twenty years after the first photograph was taken.

The first teenager to take a selfie may well have been a 13-year-old Russian youngster who in 1914 took a self-portrait (above right) using a Kodak Brownie box camera and sent the photograph to a friend with the following note “I took this picture of myself looking at the mirror. It was very hard as my hands were trembling.”

The picture is especially poignant because the girl who took it lived only another four years. She was the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna the youngest daughter of the Romanov Imperial family who all died in Ekaterinburg in July 1918 when they were shot or bayoneted by Bolshevik Revolutionaries.

Of course plenty of people took self-portraits using conventional cameras over the years following, but it wasn’t until 13 September 2002 that the word ‘selfie’ turns up. An Australian website which had been set up for people to upload digital self-portraits, received the following post along with a photograph of the poster:

Um, drunk at a mates 21st, I tripped over and landed lip first (with front teeth coming a very close second) on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.

In such banal ways is history made. Happy snapping!

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