Sunday, June 2, 2013


As unofficial archivist of the (John and Betty) Blackwell family, I’ve been scanning some of the hundreds of old photos that have been in my keeping since our mother died. It’s a time-consuming process and often tedious, but it’s also rewarding in not altogether expected ways.

I wanted to share some of that experience and some of the results, and since I despair of ever being organized enough to produce anything comprehensive or final, I’m starting this blog. Assuming I don’t get bored with it, always a possibility, it will include my observations about not just the photo scanning project, but also the family history research I began last fall and will go back to…at some point.

It’s the photographs that are really inspiring me right now. I started with an album of my mother’s, begun, it would appear, in the mid-1930s and completed in the early 1940s. I’m guessing it’s something she took to England with her during the war to remind her of those she left behind. The pictures in it are all of friends and family. The oldest appears to date from about 1914.

The album is approximately 11 x 7 inches, with a red faux-leather cover and about 20 heavy black construction paper pages, tied together with decorative string. It’s very dog-eared and worn. Inside, there is little artistry in the presentation. The pictures are often crudely cut with scissors and haphazaardly arranged on the page. Many pictures are missing. On some pages, Betty has written titles and, in some cases, captions in white ink.

I’ve known this album and the pictures in it almost as long as I can remember, and have always been fascinated by it. But I had never, I realize now, really looked at the pictures. For good reason. They are mostly very small. There appear to have been two standard sizes of commercial prints in those days, one half the size of today’s 4x6s, the other a quarter the size. Most of the pictures are badly taken with cheap cameras. They’re scratched, dirty, many are covered in mould, most are faded.

As a result, at a casual glance, they don’t convey much information. They become merely abstract signifiers. ‘Oh, that’s Mum when she was young cavorting on the beach at Grand Bend with her friends – interesting, we did the same things with our friends at that age…’ But when you scan them – and I scanned most pictures at 200%, some of the smaller ones at 250% or 300% – and display them on a high-resolution 21-inch computer screen, suddenly you can see them. It’s almost magical.

I’ve made no or little attempt so far to clean up damaged and mould-covered pictures, something that can be done with Photoshop but is very labour intensive. I did scan them in 16-bit grey scale, though, rather than colour, so pictures that had faded to sepia tone instantly look more like real black and white photographs again. I also used Photoshop’s Auto Contrast function which improved most and miraculously restored badly faded shots.

Now you can see expressions on faces that were tiny dots on the album page. You become aware of body language, and interesting detail in the the background and the way people are dressed. The sense of real lives being lived, however posed the pictures, is palpable. This is true even with damaged, dirty, scratched and out-of-focus pictures. 

Grand Bend, Summer 1936 - Betty Smith (far right) and her friend, Ollie (third from right), later her sister-in-law when Ollie married Betty's brother Jack, apparently rented a cabin and partied with friends and family. Betty was 20 when this picture was taken. According to Vernon's Directory for 1936, she was working as a stenographer at the London Free Press.

Making it all the more powerful, of course, is that many are pictures of people we knew and loved. And most that I’ve been working with so far were taken long before I was born. This has given me a different perspective on my parents in particular.

Grand Bend, Summer 1936 - Betty relaxing at the cabin.

In “On Children,” Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children./They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself./They come through you but not from you,/And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.” Ignore the Yoda-like syntax if you can. I think the sentiment is true. And I think that, in slightly different ways, it applies to parents (and aunts and uncles) too. They don’t belong to us, nor are they entirely defined by us.

Seeing these pictures of them young and vibrantly alive makes me realize how in some ways diminished they were by their roles in relation to us. More and more, I’m thinking of my parents as John and Betty. That’s who they were.

Notes: You should be able to click or tap the pictures and see them full-size, or at least bigger. Also, if anybody feels moved to submit a guest post, they would be very welcome.


  1. Oh, yummy, Gerry! I love that you're doing this. Thanks for including me. You might find Sue Birkby Cornelius is interested, she knows who everyone is, and can identify them in these old pics, and always pulls out some whenever we see her.
    The interesting thing to me about the second pic of just Betty, is how her face there really foreshadows her face in the years before her death -- all the components are there, obviously not just as they were at the end of her life, but she's instantly recognisable in the photo! And, lovely to see Iola in her youth, wasn't she a cutie! I'd forgotten that she was Betty's friend first. Smart old Jack, for recognising a keeper!

  2. Amazing, Pa! Keep it up! The pic of Grandma on the beach at Grand Bend with all her friends has particular significance for me right now, because, as you might have seen, Carly has just posted on facebook a similar picture of our group friends, at about the same age, on a beach very nearby!