Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pointing In The Right Direction

In 1985, before I left on a vacation to Jamaica, I gave my dad a little pep talk about an impending round of medical tests he was facing. Dad hated doctors and hospitals. When I returned home from my trip, I couldn’t find anyone. This was a time of pre-cell phones so they weren’t a call away. I checked with a few friends but got no leads. No one left a note for me either. I thought back to those tests and then headed to the local hospital. Unfortunately, he was there.

Dad died a few weeks later.

My dad’s brother had come over to Toronto from Glasgow, Scotland. I felt horrible that this man, who had longed to visit his brother, had done so under such terrible circumstances. When he went home, I sent almost every photograph I had of my father with him. It was the least I could do.

I remember telling my Uncle Jack, “Don’t worry, I’ve got the negatives.”

Years later, when I longed for photos of my father, do you think I could find those damned negatives? I looked everywhere, but they seemed to just disappear. I’d headed to my mom’s place and she and I looked through some of her old photo albums, the ones she could find. Still couldn’t find those damned negatives.

“These will all be yours someday son,” she’d said to me waving her hand over a stack of photo albums.

A stack of Polaroids waiting to be scanned
Mom died two years ago and when I was cleaning out her apartment I boxed up every photo I could find. There were hundreds including her and dad’s entire wedding album. It took me a long time to start sorting though them. I wanted to scan them to keep them safe. Were the images I found that impressive that I needed to protect them so the world could see them? Were they museum quality shots? Were they shot by professionals and worth a lot of money? Was Ansel Adams a part of my family?

No on all counts. However, I did feel the need to protect them for my family’s posterity. Could others find them interesting? Maybe, but the thrust was to ensure that my family had a photographic record of some of its early members. And wouldn’t you know it, I found those damned negatives, too.

Me and Dad.
I’m passionate about photography. I’ve been paid for my photographs but I still don’t think of myself as a professional. The marketing department of a camera manufacturer would call me a prosumer; not quite a pro but above an amateur. I’ve worked hard to improve at the craft of taking pictures. When I went through the hundreds of pictures accumulated by my parents I lost track of the number of bad ones. There were a lot of bad photos.

And I loved them. Bad, good and everything in between.

Part of my interest in photography was always seeing a camera in my dad’s hands. I remember the 8mm movie camera he had that he cranked to use. I remember the Super 8 movie camera he used with the cartridges. The camera I remember the most was his beloved Polaroid. I found out recently that my brother had it. Once I got the model number it took me a week to get my own. It was a Polaroid ‘Automatic’ 330 Land Camera which was produced between 1969-1971.

The O'Neills in October of '69. Dig those ties.
I can still see the spots in my eyes from the flash he used. Dad became a master at pulling the picture from the camera. He’d flip the little switch on the back of the camera to start the timer, dangle the ‘developing’ picture and wait. I can still hear the sound of the timer buzzing down, and when it stopped, he’d peel the photo from the chemical paper and there was his photo. It was a special moment, every single time he’d reveal the results.

He was no Art Wolfe or Yousuf Karsh; he was a man who loved to take pictures of the people and places in his life. He had little patience for manuals. No time to shoot with film formats that forced him to run to the drug store for ‘prints’.

Mom and Dad weren’t the only shooters to contribute to the pile of photos, their friends added photos and so did I. Those negatives I spoke of yielded some great shots of dad. I even scored one of he and I together. I discovered that when I started out in photography I was no Adams, Karsh or Wolfe either. The shoe box full of photos along with the bags and smaller boxes, all had blurry shots, heads cut off, underexposed, overexposed…all kinds of crazy mistakes. I smile when I look at them.

Bottom of Mimico Ave in Etobicoke. Painted streetcar stop. Traffic lights 'button'
I am so thankful that someone, anyone, skilled at photography or not, was there to take these photos. They show the city where I was born and the one where I grew up. Most importantly, there are many photos of family and friends. Though these may not be considered national treasures, they are historical documents to me and hopefully to my kin’s future generations.

I’m thrilled that my daughter has picked up a camera and started to shoot – and not just shots for her Facebook page. She’s trying to learn, just like I did after seeing my dad with his camera. This means more photos to add to the pile – good, bad and everything in between.

So thanks dad, mom and all those people who shall remain nameless, for picking up all those different cameras and pointing them in the right direction.

What follows are just a few of the photos I found in my mom's 'pile' of pictures. I hope this gives others the impetus to gather up their family photos.  

Andy (my dad) and his brother, Alex.

Alice and Andy O'Neill (my parents).

My grandmother Alice Paterick and her parents William and Elizabeth.

Loch Ean, Scotland, 1954. Third from the left in the very back row (slight profile) is my Grandfather, Thomas Adair.

Me and my brother Andy. Glasgow, Scotland, 1963.

Alex (Elky) O'Neill, my uncle. My mom, dad and me, downtown Glasgow, 1969. This shot was taken by my brother. How can I tell? Everyone but me is looking down at him.

My Grandfather teaching my Uncle Tommy how to fly. Love the push car.

Househillmuir Rd, Glasgow, Scotland. Some of my family.

Dad, doing what he did best. He was a great entertainer.


Danielle La Paglia said...

My favorite is with Tommy flying. And you inspired to find a favorite old photo of my own. When I was a little girl, my grandpa would come visit and he would sing and play and talk to me all afternoon. I loved it. My mom snapped this photo of us.

Ian O'Neill said...

Oh man, you're super cute. That is such a lovely image. I'm glad you found it.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit of a photoholic too. I love spending hours lost in family albums. Thank you so much for sharing yours today Ian. :)

@Danni, lovely pic. :)

Ian O'Neill said...

Thanks Tammy.

Jax said...

Those are awesome. My grandparents passed away within a year and a half of each other, and my grandfather was a big fan of keeping photos of everything and everyone. As hard as it is to look through some of them, I'm also really enjoying the memories they bring back. Plus, it's been great fun to see which family members know the stories that go with them. What you're doing is a great gift for your loved ones.

Ian O'Neill said...

It sounds like your grandfather left a great gift for you too.