Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 22, 2016

Missing pictures

Cell phone cameras allow us to have an abundance of images of friends and family available at any time. It is not unusual for people to tell me that they have several hundred pictures on their cell phone and most of those contain people. Still, if you look through those pictures, there are big parts of our lives that are often barely represented.

Those of us interested in family history often begin with the bare-bones details of names, births, deaths, marriages and relationships. To these, we work to add the stuff of everyday life such as where people lived, what they did for a living, what sort of personality they had, leisure time activities and almost anything else that adds flesh to those bones. But there is nothing like a photo to make that collection of details into a person.

Yet before about 1850, the only kind of picture a person could hope to find would be the type created by an artist. Even for the soldiers in our Civil War, men were officially identified by written descriptions of eye and hair color, general shape of the head, height and weight.

In the latter half of the 19th century, pictures became popular. But taking one often involved going to a photographer's studio or having him bring his large delicate camera to the person's home. That meant that the taking of a photograph was something of an event in its own right. So often it was done to commemorate an important event such as a wedding, the birth of a child or a family reunion. If fate permitted, there might be the 25th and 50th wedding anniversary shots.

But unless a relative worked in the entertainment industry, was the town mayor or a church official, a picture of him or her doing the usual things of his or her life is comparatively rare. Oddly, even with today's ubiquitous camera and virtually costless photo, that is as true today as it was years ago.

Frequently absent from cell-phone portfolios are photos from work. Bruce Laughlin, when he was the director of the Kansas State University placement center, often mentioned to students that it wouldn't be unusual if for many years they spent more hours at work than they did with their spouse. Yet while pictures of family birthdays or vacations fill scrapbooks or camera memory cards, pictures taken at work are hard to come by.

In some cases, this is completely understandable. Many companies aren't very interested in having employees spending time taking personal photos or risking the distribution of some image containing what they may consider to be a trade secret. And some occupations just do not produce very impressive photo opportunities. A picture of me reading a student's paper or entering grades into the computer would be a bit of a snorer.

Still, I'd be hard pressed to find a photo of me teaching a class or talking with students in a laboratory.

Husband Art once mentioned that beginning in 1934, for more than 30 years, his grandfather and father held the mail messenger position in his hometown. This involved a government contract to transport the United States mail between the post office and the trains. It was literally a 24-hour-per-day-7-day-a-week job and so other members of the family and outsiders were employed. Yet over that span, Art is only aware of three picture connected to that work. One of those was entirely accidental. A government official stepped off the train only to be met by local news media. Art's Dad could be seen loading the truck over the official's shoulder. In today's language, Tom's work picture was the result of his inadvertently becoming a photobomb!

Until I left for college, I lived on the family farm and there are few jobs that penetrate all hours of a person's life more than farming does. Still, as I look through my old pictures, the number of Dad with the tractor or Uncle Stan with the sheep are few in number compared to pictures of trips we took to California or relatives gathered around the dinner table.

When I asked Art about his 20 years as a professor, he could recall only a few pictures taken of him at work. Most of those were from one particular day when a fellow professor arranged a practical joke. It involved a belly dancer performing in Art's class on Valentine's Day.

Over the many years he worked as an engineer, he could think of pictures taken of things he worked on, either for documentation or to show a customer some aspect of a project. But of his actually working, he can think of none - although that may validate his common response when someone asks what he does for a living: "As little as possible."

However, it isn't only work that is overlooked when it comes to picture taking. For years, Mom painted and sketched using many different media. But such an activity is almost always done when alone. So despite being a family that overflows with cameras and pictures, I was startled when I recently came across a photo from 2005 of her sitting at a table sketching the parts of flowers.

In most cases, we never really think about why we take a picture. It becomes second nature to pull out the camera during an event we see as special ... an event such as a graduation from school, a holiday like Thanksgiving or the marking of another birthday. But working or engaging in a favorite hobby, despite consuming a huge amount of our life's time, tend to not have that "this is special" feel to them. And so, these non-events that really define much of who we are as well as the majority of time spent with others never make it to the photo album. They become the missing pictures of our life.

Left: Art's Dad unloading mail at the post office in Appleton, Wisconsin in the 1950s. Tom died before I met Art; middle: Art's friend and fellow professor Bill arranged for a surprise visit by a belly dancer to one of Art's classes at Kansas State University in about 1982. The dancer had wrapped Art's head in a veil before reading the poem Bill had composed. Part of a circuit diagram can be seen on the board drawn by Art before the class was interrupted; right: after writing the column, I had co-worker Wanda snap a picture of me in my office in Kedzie Hall on the KSU campus.

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