Category Archives: Family

My Family Photos Project: Notes on Reconstructing Three Generations of Family Photos

My mother, with whom I currently live, is getting older, and less well. Her enormous collection of family photos, taken mainly by her and her father, recording the lives of, basically, three generations, in England and Canada, is one of her most precious assets. (Technically, including a couple of pictures of my great-grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents, and a couple of pictures of my cousins’ kids, there are six generations represented in the collection.) To avoid family squabbles when the inevitable happens, I decided three months ago to digitalize the collection, so the pictures could be readily shared among family members. I had ready access to the original photos, and owned an iPhone and  iPad, with which it is now possible to accomplish such a job at virtually no extra cost (I had to purchase the photo scanner app, Pic Scanner, that cost all of $2.99)–unless time is translated into dollars.

When I started this project, I wanted simply to get the original photos into digital form. I had no thought of tinkering with the photos in any way; however, for previous projects, I’ve exploited the graphics capabilities of my iPad, acquiring a fairly good knowledge of these capabilities as I went along, and, not long into this family photo project, originally just for pragmatic reasons, I started digitally enhancing, or modifying, some of the old family photos. Later into the project, I made further modifications for my pleasure and amusement–and, I hope, for the pleasure and amusement of those who will see these images.

This blog post comprises a small sample of the finished digitalized photos, with notes about my process of making any modifications that were made–and, in some cases, not making any modifications, because the original photos were wonderful as they were. Besides being for interested family members, who may notice that several pictures in their collection of digitalized family album photos aren’t quite as they remember, this post may serve as an inspiration to others thinking of undertaking similar family album projects. There’s much more that can be done with the photos than just basic scanning. This post also serves to explain, to some extent, what I’ve been doing with my free time in the past few months, instead of writing the blog posts that used to appear here regularly, every couple of weeks. (My mother’s needs also have been greater lately, and have required an increased amount of my ‘free’ time.)

 BASIC ADDING OF COLOUR

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After digitalizing all the photos in my mother’s photo albums, and after making many of the enhancements that I would make–including, in some cases, adding colour–to certain photos in the collection, I found this photo, delicately painted with watercolours, amid an assortment of small, loose, photos from my mother’s youth in her native England, in a crumpled plastic bag at the back of a cupboard in a now unused room upstairs. These precious photos could easily have been lost forever if I hadn’t found them when I did.

The image is of my mother, at about age two, with her childhood pet dog. It probably was my mother who painted this picture, when she was still a child, a few years older than she was in this picture. However, although I don’t remember it, if I did get my hands on this picture when I was a kid, it could have been me who painted it, since I enjoyed colouring as a kid, and was good at it (even winning some colouring contests, for which I earned my first small ‘paycheques’). Or it may have been someone else entirely …

The inclination to add colour to B&W photos probably has been common for a long time, even long before there was such as thing as colour photography. Now that colour photography is our norm, the inclination is probably even more common. With digital photography, and the various graphics tools that cost next to nothing that can be installed on tablets and SmartPhones, enhancing B&W photos with colour has become extremely easy. Sometimes colour does enhance an old B&W photo–although, in other cases, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s a question of taste.

Pictures I Took Myself

The following two images started with B&W photos I myself took with my first-ever camera, when I was about seven years old and we lived on the beachfront at Crescent Beach (a beach town near Vancouver). The camera was a cheap plastic camera, that I must have received as a gift from my parents, for which the cost of a roll of film and the developing of the film probably well-exceeded the cost of the camera. Taking a decent picture with that camera was extremely iffy. I remember how disappointed I was when I got the pictures I had taken with it back from developing: most were just a blur.  (I went through only two rolls of film with that camera.) My mother did, however, save in her family album from that era the handful of pictures I took with that camera that were at all worth saving, including these two pictures–one of my youngest sister sitting on a log on the beach and the other of my mother standing beside a breakwater.

Because the original prints were somewhat out of focus (these were the good ones in the group), and because I had taken the original pictures myself, I felt no qualms about doing some basic editing, just recropping the pictures and doing some simple colour enhancement using colour filters from the app, Colorburn. (The app is American, hence the spelling.)  These were the first photos in this massive family photo project with which I did more than just scan.

 

Now I get to feel better about my first venture into photography than I did when, as a young kid, I pulled those very disappointing B&W prints out of the photo envelope at the drugstore. (My mother very much likes the subtly colourized version of herself on the beach.)

Pictures Taken by My Mother

When I next started tinkering with a few of the family photos taken by my mother, I had to think twice about whether I was crossing a line that I shouldn’t be crossing. My mother has, by now, seen these colourized pictures, and says that–with one notable exception–she likes the pictures.

I chose to try colour enhancement with the photo immediately below because it is an important photo in terms of our family record, yet the original was somewhat out of focus, and also needed more brightness to make the subjects stand out. The subjects of the photo include my father, in the centre, flanked by his mother (or my grandmother) and her identical twin sister (or my great-aunt), the twins’ mother (or my great-grandmother) sitting at the front, me on my father’s shoulders, and my younger sister, then a new baby, on our great-grandmother’s lap. The setting is, I think, the  large back yard of my grandmother’s house in North Vancouver–where she kept a goat, for milk. (Even back then, this was odd in North Vancouver.)

After much trial and error, I came across a wondrous single photo filter, Wonka, within the camera app, Camera Awesome, that did all the amazing colourizing that is evident in the before and after images. This AWESOME filter adds a cloudy blue sky effect in the upper reaches, greens and browns for vegetation in the background, and highlights for central figures, plus a little red trim along the bottom that works beautifully in this picture with the trim on the bottom of my great-grandmother’s dress, all in one fell swoop! I couldn’t have done a better job colourizing this photo if I’d handpainted it. This miraculous filter alone makes the app worth purchasing. (I already had it on my iPad before starting this family album project.)

To give readers some sense of the sensitivity to form of the Wonka filter, I also used it to colourize the below image, of me again perched on the shoulders of my father. The filter apparently recognized, through shape and location cues, that there are no trees or lawn in this photo, and omitted most of the green part of the filter.

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Even in basic B&W, the below photo of my father with me again perched on his shoulders walking in the woods, another taken by my mother, is beautiful. It was my attraction to this lovely photograph, and what it represents about my early relationship with my father–and the early relationships of both of us with my mother, the photographer–that led me to play around with it. I created about a dozen variations, only two of which, plus the original, I have included below. For the image in the centre, I used just basic colour filters. For the image on the right, I used the app, Brushstroke, that offers a wide and very interesting selection of painting effects and colour palettes.

I chose to tinker with the below B&W photo taken by my mother because it was an interesting photo of me and two of my sisters (I’m on the right, feigning surprise, I think) yet I found the lighting qualities of the original very unsatisfying. After playing around with some filters, I very much like what I ended up with–although my mother says my version is “too bright.”  Sometimes, it is a matter of taste.

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On the whole, adding some enhancements to my mother’s photographs, with her providing input, proved to be a lovely collaboration between me and my mother.

AN INTERESTING ACCIDENT

When scanning photos using the ‘snapshot method’ that is the foundation of smartphone scanning apps like the one I used for this project, Pic Scanner, you’re likely to sometimes get distortion effects through holding the ‘camera’ (i.e., phone) at the wrong angle. When you’re getting towards the end of a batch of more that a hundred photos you’re trying to scan in one morning, before heading off to work, getting some distortion effects is almost inevitable. In both of the below images there is some distortion, although the distortion is far more pronounced–and more interesting–in the image on the right. (The image on the left is closer to the original although, in that one, there’s still a strange elongation of the lower limbs of my father and sister.)

The effect of the looming totem pole was so interesting that I took the time to add some colour to this image using Colorburn. (I hope me playing around with this totem pole in this way doesn’t offend anyone. It’s not my intention.) The use of just a couple of colours for the entire image, repeated for the totem and the human subjects, suggests, to me, the people in the image are part of the totem pole.

 

THE WONDERFUL EARLY ENGLISH PHOTOS

As I previously mentioned, after digitalizing all of the photos in the many family albums, and tinkering with a few, and thinking I was finally DONE, I came across a stray crumpled plastic bag containing many more small photos from my mother’s youth in England. There were at least fifty photos in this batch.

Many of these small photos (each only two inches by three inches) were extremely damaged, although several were, despite the damage, quite lovely. The salvage job required that I become adept at using the photo-editing app, Snapseed (another app I already had downloaded, although used infrequently, prior to this project).  This iPad app, that again costs next to nothing, is exceptionally good, enabling anyone with some extra time and some manual dexterity to do the kind of photo-editing that previously would have had to be done by professionals, using expensive equipment.

Before coming across these old pictures, some of which are close to a hundred years old, I had no idea how attractive my mother’s mother (my English grandmother) was as a young woman. I also had no idea what an excellent photographer my English grandfather was. (He never finished high school, but made a great success as a wine merchant in London after serving in WW I. He was the one in that generation of the family who took most of the family photos.) His forte was composition, with many of his photos resembling still-life paintings.

Because most of these photos were so beat up when I found them, and serious imperfections remained in several of them even after my editing with Snapseed, I again took the liberty of doing some cosmetic tinkering.

The first example is of my mother as a toddler, with her mother behind her, apparently helping to ensure the toddler remains erect, wading in shallow water on the shore. This picture seemed well-suited to a vignette treatment–and a little colour.

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I chose to tinker with the below photo, of my grandmother lying on the sand with grass in the background, taken by my grandfather on their honeymoon, because the sky in the original photo was very blotchy, even after my preliminary editing. I used a painting effect for my grandfather’s painterly photo available on Brushstroke, and a blue and gold colour filter also available on Brushstroke. Finally, I went over the sky using an airbrush effect on  ArtStudio, to get rid of the last of those blotches.

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The below two symmetrical images, of my grandfather smoking a pipe and my grandmother holding a coat, wading in water, originally were separate, but I joined them, using the app Pic Stitch.  After that, I added some colour, using colour filters.

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I wonder what my grandfather, in particular, who seemed to be quite the artist at heart, would think of this picture of him and his then-new bride dipping their feet in some colour. (An ordinary blue would have been too prosaic for the kind of effect I wanted to capture here. I wanted my youthful grandparents to be dipping their feet in some real COLOUR.)

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Some photos just shouldn’t be messed with, other than, maybe, a little tuning, and the following photo is one of them. I love this picture of my grandmother, taken when she was about twenty years old, by my grandfather. Her face and expression in this picture remind me of a young Kate Winslet. The composition of this photo is beautiful.

The below photo, another taken by my grandfather, is of my mother when she was about two years old, against a bucolic country backdrop.  (When my mother recently saw this picture, she was reminded of all the times when she was a young child that she took off on her own to explore her environs, leaving her parents very worried.)

All I did to this picture was sharpen up the focus in certain areas using Snapseed, brighten up the foreground image of child, again using Snapseed, and patch up the sky, that was quite damaged in the original photo, again using Snapseed and ArtStudio. My grandfather deserves the real credit for this beautiful photo.

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  POSSIBLE TAKING AWAY OF COLOUR

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In the course of my family photo album project, while I added colour to several old B&W photos, I never took colour away from any of the hundreds of colour photos with which I worked. It’s a technique that could be worth exploring for this kind of project.

I’ve included the above images of tomatoes here to illustrate one use of this technique. The images started with a colour photo I took of three of the varied tomatoes I grew in our garden a few years ago, that I tweaked with ArtStudio to derive the image on the left. Then I took the colour away, and superimposed a photo of clouds in the sky,  to derive the second image of a “tomato-being” floating in the clouds. (The image was to illustrate a post about cloud computing in my first, novice, blog, “The Tomato Diaries.” Each post included an image that incorporated tomatoes.) No, the “tomato-being” is not a relative. I’m not descended from inhabitants of an intergalactic vegetable patch–or, for that matter, from a terrestrial one.

 

 MIXED TECHNIQUES (AND MIXED EMOTIONS)

With digital graphics techniques, and the current ready access of most of us to good, and inexpensive, graphics tools, there really are no limits (other than the ethical kind) in how far one can take the photos in the digital family album.

On Pi Day, last week, I created the below image, starting with a simple B&W photo my mother took of me on a teeter-totter. To create this image, along with various apps I’ve already mentioned in this post, I used the app, Fragment, to get the multiple images of the girl (i.e., me) that frame the central image.

The edited image suggests to me learning the basics of geometry and physics through physical activity. It’s also a happy picture, with the suggestion that the related learning experiences are enjoyable.

On a related theme, one of my sisters has less pleasant memories of teeter-totters. I showed her the below photo, without any of its graphic embellishments, when she came for a visit recently, when I was in the midst of my family album project,  and the words in the speech bubble are almost word-for-word what she said. (She thinks this ‘cartoon’ is amusing, so I’m taking the liberty of sharing it.) To get the ‘cartoon’ effects, I used the app, Halftone.

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A CELEBRATION!

After three months, my family album project is finally complete.

It’s been a very worthwhile project, and I encourage anyone who is thinking of attempting such a project to go for it.

It’s good that I did this while my mother is still with us, since she’s been able to pass on her knowledge about people and places in the photos–that I recorded in the Comments section of Dropbox, the app that I used to share the photos. It’s a process that I think she’s enjoyed, as well.

Enhancing some of the photos in the vast collection has proved to be a lovely collaboration not only between me and my mother, but also between me and my English grandfather, who passed on his love of photography to his daughter.

Now it’s time for me to celebrate! That’s me, below, on my fourth birthday, many years ago, before colour photography–but colourized with Colorburn.  (My next birthday is in just a few days.)

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Reclaiming Our Stories: Another View of Residential Schools

For a couple of years, when I was in my late teens, my family was entirely dysfunctional. Right after my mother and father separated, there was some financial hardship and the trauma of moving from a small town to the big city so my mother could go back to work as a secretary. But that was nothing compared to when my mother hooked up with an abusive, violent, alcoholic, fertilizer salesman (really), who moved in with my mother and we four girls when I was 17. Things then got completely out of control–or, should I say, the fertilizer really flew.

As the eldest of the brood, with only two years left in high-school, immediately after which I hightailed it out of there, I got off relatively easy. But I do know a thing or two about growing up in poverty with an alcoholic parent, or surrogate parent, and how this can affect kids. The kids who are especially vulnerable, because they’re the youngest, or smallest, or least developed intellectually or emotionally, are likely to be left deeply scarred, with very low esteem. As adults, unless they recognize their problems and get professionally help, or somehow work out their problems themselves, they are likely to perpetuate the pattern of abuse.

And, oh yes, I’m White. Bad stuff sometimes happens in White families, too.

I mention this aspect of my background here–that I haven’t previously publicly divulged–because it’s relevant to my concerns about dominant narratives in Canada concerning First Nations residential schools.

I personally know not just one, but two, White Canadian writers, both of whom come from, in my view, very privileged backgrounds and both of whom are strong proponents of the now-dominant view in Canada, shared by Whites and Aboriginals alike, that Canadian First Nations residential schools were basically hellholes. Although it’s not indicated in any of their published writings of which I’m aware, both received at least their secondary educations (and maybe their elementary educations, too) in private Christian boarding schools. Schools for rich kids.  (At least some of my readers probably will want to know these writers’ names. I’m sorry, but I won’t be providing that information here. You’ll have to take my word for it.)

I don’t personally know anyone who attended a residential school. However, the comments of a Native audience member, who had family members who had attended such schools, at a talk I attended in Toronto about the residential schools, back when I was a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, support my suspicions.

This Native audience member, a teacher herself, took exception to the overall condemnation of residential schools by the speaker, a White university professor. She pointed out that her aunt generally had enjoyed her experiences. Among the things she enjoyed, according to her niece, were that there were three meals a day and clean sheets on her bed once a week–things she wasn’t able to take for granted at home. Also, she developed a love for learning, that she shared with her niece, who went on to university and became a teacher.

I don’t mean to suggest that the residential schools were entirely without problems. But I do suspect that the very dark picture of them that currently prevails in Canada is due at least in large measure to certain influential, privileged, White folks projecting dark memories of their own boarding school experiences onto residential schools and their First Nations students. If one comes from a financially and emotionally stable family background, boarding-school life may indeed seem wretched compared to family life; but if one isn’t so lucky, while school may not be paradise, it’s likely to be more tolerable.

As for emotional scars having been left on former generations of Canada’s Aboriginal people by the residential schools, and these scars being the root cause of problems such as alcoholism and domestic abuse among succeeding generations, there are other ways that one, whether Native or White, can become emotionally scarred. Only approximately 30% of Canada’s Aboriginal children attended residential schools during the period that they were primarily active (between 1876, following the passage of the Indian Act, until the late 20th Century). It would be interesting to know which group, those who did or those who didn’t attend residential school, ended up better off.

Poverty, associated with the breakdown of traditional cultures, was rampant among Canada’s First Nations people during most of the period of the residential schools, and continues to be common among many of our First Nations people. To escape poverty, education is key.  Also, through education, we  can achieve greater control over our stories–stories told about us by others and stories about us we tell ourselves.

**In doing some basic research for this piece, I came across an interesting article published in The National Post newspaper last year, “Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad?“, in which the author, Paul Russell, debunks various common conceptions about residential schools. While the issue of privileged White people possibly projecting their own narratives onto Aboriginal people isn’t addressed in this article, issues such as the ‘high’ rate of fatalities in the residential schools from tuberculosis and smallpox and the ‘abusive’ disciplinary practices of teachers are addressed. For anyone interested in the residential schools, I believe this article is worth a read.

The Frayed Red Poppy: Suggestions for Updates to Canada’s Remembrance Day

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Five years from now, on November 11th of 2018, it will be the 100th anniversary of the end of the hostilities of World War I.   This would seem to be a fitting occasion for the end of the Canadian Remembrance Day, in its conventional form.  Remembrance Day was started, after all, one year after the end of these hostilities, to commemorate the loss of lives of military personnel in WW I.  I would suggest that, subsequently, the focus of the annual national holiday should be shifted to recognizing and thanking the Canadian military, past and present, for its varied contributions, not only on the battlefield–similar to the American Veterans Day, that also takes place on November 11th.   Barring major Canadian military casualties in the upcoming years, the frequency of a national tribute for those Canadian men and women who lost their lives fighting for Canada could be cut back to every 5, or 10, or 25 years, as the majority of Canadians in future years saw fit,  and be just one aspect of the November 11th commemoration.  Only then would red poppies, now a frayed symbol of lives lost in war, bloom on our lapels.

I’m making these suggestions after having accompanied my mother, a veteran of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (or WAAF) in WW II, to two Remembrance Day ceremonies at her local Legion separated by four years–the most recent of which was just last week.  What a difference four years has made at the West Point Grey Legion in Vancouver.  Four years ago, there were a couple of dozen uniformed older male and female veterans in attendance, veterans of WW II and the Korean War–and many other older folk who, like my mother, weren’t in uniform, but who seemed to be veterans.  (My mother turned in her uniform at the end of her service, which she later regretted.  Would she still have fit into that old uniform?  I won’t tell.)  In these four years, the male ranks, in particular, had greatly declined.  Those old guys, who I’d flirted with a little, complimenting them on all their medals and other military decorations, were virtually all gone now, probably victims of the run-of-the-mill brutality of old age.  Also, at the recent ceremony, there wasn’t the large contingent of younger, active, servicemen and servicewomen who had attended four years ago.  Four years ago, there was an unusually high attendance of young, active, military people at this particular Remembrance Day ceremony because, in a couple of months, the Winter Olympics would be held in Vancouver,  and the Canadian Armed Forces was assisting with the preparation of facilities and advance security.  Many of the military personnel in Vancouver for the Olympics were staying at the Point Grey Barracks, just up the hill from this Legion, and this is where they commemorated Remembrance Day.  I knew four years ago that there was then an unusually high attendance of young, active, military people; but I didn’t know how unusually high until this year, when I observed virtually no such people.

Four years ago, fortuitously, with the exception of the relatively short ceremonial part of the proceedings that did stress honouring soldiers who had lost their lives in battle, I had participated in the kind of “Remembrance Day” that I think is befitting for Canada in years to come: a commemoration of national service, past and present, and a celebration of our national values.  This year, Remembrance Day at this Legion was a generally much more dour and, in the current age, dubious, affair.

It occurred to me in the course of this year’s ceremony that I haven’t personally known a single person who has lost their life fighting in a war, or in any other military action.   My closest relative who died in military action was the husband of my great-aunt, Dolly, who was shot down in the Battle of Britain in WW II (the first major military campaign fought entirely by air forces), and who died before I was born.  My mother’s father fought in WW I, including in the Battle of the Somme; but, despite the heavy losses for the UK in this prolonged battle, he survived.  People in  the United Kingdom and Canada who participated in the first Remembrance Day held in 1919 almost inevitably personally knew people who had lost their lives in WW I: the UK lost 887,000 military personnel in this war, or 2.19% of its population; Canada lost 65,000, or .92% of its population.

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A Reproduction of a Canadian Armed Forces Recruitment Poster from WW I

Although there were fewer casualties in WW II,  those from these two countries who participated in Remembrance Day ceremonies in the years immediately following WW II also were likely to have personally known soldiers who had died in this war: the UK had 383,800 military deaths in WW II, or .94% of its 1939 population, while Canada had approximately 45,000 military deaths, or .40% of its 1939 population.

But the likelihood of Canadians personally knowing someone who has died in battle has greatly decreased in recent decades.  Canada lost approximately 500 soldiers in the Korean War (that lasted from 1950 to 1953); 157 in Afghanistan; and 121 in the peacekeeping activities of recent decades.  (All the wartime mortality figures in this post are taken from the website canadaatwar.ca.)  To put these more recent figures in some perspective, according to WorkSafeBC, there already have been 47 workplace deaths just this year, in just the province of British Columbia.  (There have been no catastrophic workplace accidents in BC during this period that individually resulted in numerous casualties. This seems to be a normal number for this period, for just one Canadian province.)   I don’t wish to trivialize the more recent military mortalities; however, in terms of Canadians in general being personally acquainted with those who have died in military action, or even personally knowing someone else who lost someone close to them who died in this way, there has been a major drop in recent decades.

Many Canadians my age (late fifties) and younger who now attend Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies are likely to do so largely to support their elders who served in World War II or the Korean War, and/or who lost people close to them in these wars.  (Besides serving herself in the WAAF, my mother lost a close male friend, Peter Moody, a member of Britain’s Royal Air Force, who died in, of all places, Medicine Hat, Alberta, on a training mission with the Canadian Air Force. )  But, when those elders are gone, even a very nice luncheon after the ceremony–even including a couple of free drinks–may not be enough to entice us to attend these ceremonies commemorating only the dead, whose contributions we may appreciate, but who we never personally knew.  Not even just once every four years.