NOWADAYS, when smartphones and cinema-quality video cameras have made Tarantinos and Hitchcocks of so many people, home video and cine film seem quaintly old-fashioned.
But there is a curious paradox in the proliferation of digital images and film in the 21st century – the perennial problem of quantity over quality – the easier something is, the less we value it.
In those distant pre-digital days, you had to be careful how many photos you took, because film and developing your pictures cost a lot of money. You couldn’t keep snapping to get it right so you had to put up with Auntie May having her eyes shut, sundry uncles in the rugby free-kick position and the amusing but unintended novelty pictures in which an unnoticed poster for digestive biscuits gave cousin Arnold a pair of Mickey Mouse ears or a fine set of antlers apparently growing from his grey head turning grandpa into some mythical monster …
Now we all take countless pictures, spend hours scrolling through the results (boring everyone rigid with the repetition) – and never look at them again. They gather digital dust on our laptops and most of us never even get round to captioning them, so that two or three years later you can hardly remember where DSC_0765.JPG was taken. Or why.
You begin to realise that what you cherish and return to, when you are remembering a special event, wedding, baby’s christening, civil partnership or even your divorce bash, are the photographs in the album that a friend has lovingly put together for you, rather than the CD of images provided by the official photographer.
We have been sorting through boxes and collapsing albums full of old photos, rediscovering old friends and outings, tea parties and holidays that we had almost forgotten. The faded and crumpled images bring back memories of childhood and of more than 40 years of our life together.
My sister has had our family’s old cine and video films digitised onto two three-hour DVDs. None of us knew what we would find.
If you apply even the most minimal of aesthetic criteria, they are dreadful, but they were never meant to be works of art. Some are dull and some so damaged by light and damp that they are almost impossible to watch. But in among the unidentified picnics and parties – who on earth is that woman in the funny hat or the bouncing child on the trampoline? – there are treasures we are thrilled to rediscover.
There’s the “baby film” – five minutes of crackly black and white taken by my uncle visiting from Africa at our grandmother’s house in Bristol. My sisters are crawling, their legs tangled in wide baggy rompers. My grandmother is typically regal, proud of her house and beautiful garden, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. I have a pudding basin hair cut and National Health glasses and am trying to distract my mother’s attention from the twins. Both our parents are smoking.
As children we adored this film – we laughed at our antics and teased our parents about the fags stuck to their lips.
Watching it brought back memories of a time when life was simpler, health and safety didn’t ban the swing from the chestnut tree or prevent everyone piling into an open car without seat belts, let alone child restraints! And sometimes we were naked!
Another delight was the “puppy film” – the three of us rolling and tumbling in our garden at Lyndhurst with a bundle of golden retriever puppies. As the puppies grow, their numbers reduce until there is only one, the smart “runt”: who always ran back to my mother if he did anything naughty, so that she could not bear to part with him.
There is film taken by my mother when she drove out to the Middle East with us, with a three-month baby and a new car. Father thought it was a mad adventure but that if mother went along we wouldn’t do anything too silly. Mmmm.
Father liked to position himself with the camera to capture us when we weren’t expecting it. On a trip to Scotland with family friends, he waited to film us leaving a shop near Oban. It had been raining – Auntie Audrey, who was shy and nervous but cared how she looked, emerges and can clearly be seen saying, “Oh Tim, I’ve got my plastic mac on!”
Many people in the photos and films are long gone; we have all moved on and our lives have taken us to many unexpected places, geographically and emotionally.
What remains from these old pictures and silent fuzzy old films is that enduring sense of place and a wealth of shared experience that does not fade.