“A picture is worth a thousand words.” The phrase came into use in the early part of the 20th century. At that time the words commended the effectiveness of graphics in advertising. It is believed the phrase was adapted from a Chinese proverb: One picture is worth ten thousand words.
Whether a thousand or ten thousand, the word value of the three huge tubs of photos stacked before us was equivalent to a mountain of dictionaries. Our mother had accumulated countless pictures throughout her 96 years of life. She labeled and sorted and gave away, but many remained. Though we all enjoyed a photo journey through the old days, the massive task loomed over my siblings and me on this day of our annual family reunion: to sort and divide thousands of printed images.
Deloris got us going as we lounged around her dining room table. We lugged the first case to a chair and opened the top envelope. Out fell a menagerie of very old formal photographs. Dark pressed-board background framed thick prints. Gray marbled folders begged to be opened. The work of professional photographers, their embossed or gilded insignia adorned the bottom: McKibben of De Smet and A. Swancutt of Bryant, S.D. The subjects stood or sat stiffly, faces molded in a serious pose. No smiles back then. In wedding photographs, often the man sat. His new bride posed at his side in her wedding finery. As we read Mom’s notes on the back and passed the pictures around the table, we joked that their facial expressions reflected second thoughts on their new state of matrimonial bliss.
The next layer was manila envelopes stuffed with small, glossy black and white prints sporting scalloped edges. From the nooks and crannies of our minds emerged an image of our father, head bent over a black “box” as he centered us in the view finder and pushed the button. The black box was a Brownie, one in a series of simple and inexpensive cameras made by Eastman Kodak. Dad loaded the film and cranked the lever on the side to advance it for each picture. The roll of exposed film was mailed in to be developed into photos. The total cost of film and developing ran under two dollars. Since you paid for every picture (faces, feet or sky!) a lot of time was spent placing the tall people in the back and making sure everybody’s face showed, hopefully with eyes open.
In contrast to the old professional photos, these displayed smiling faces even though “Say Cheese” had not yet been coined. Kids sitting in a wagon or on a sled. Adults in front of a car. When we had visitors, Dad got out the camera, and we lined up for a picture.
As each precious print circled the table, memories surfaced. Sometimes we had to stop for a story. The faded brown paper crackled as we opened another package. This one was heavier, and immediately we saw color.
Technology fascinated our father. Teaching his children how things worked was as important to him as preserving history with photos. Shortly after Polaroid cameras were introduced, the whole family discovered how a print developed as we gathered around Dad and his new camera.
He snapped the picture, waited a few seconds, pulled out the perforated paper, then peeled off the filmy tissue. A distinctive odor permeated the air as we watched the last details form. Those glossy Polaroid prints reminded us of opening Christmas presents and blowing out birthday candles.
The piles at the end of the table grew as we chose a new home for each photograph. The level remaining in the first tub dwindled. One memory stirred up another. Deloris’ cookies disappeared. The coffeepot brewed record refills.
Silent prayers of thanks rose when we announced the last packages which were loaded with square white-bordered prints. We recalled that Dad replaced the Polaroid with a Kodak. Flash bulbs or flash cubes allowed inside pictures. A cube was supposed to provide four flashes. Occasionally, much to the photographer’s frustration, one side didn’t flash, or we forgot to keep track of the flashes and snapped a photo when the cube was all used up. Occasionally, we played Guess Who with a really dark print when the photos came in the mail.
Then Instamatics came out. Quantity and subject matter increased drastically as we all became photographers. The pictures proved it. Showing animals at the fair. Lincoln Memorial. Mom with her flowers. Dad’s new car. Graduations. Confirmations. Baptisms. New grandchildren. Trips to see new grandchildren. The dog. My cat. My other cat.
Though the time had passed quickly in pleasant camaraderie, we released a collective sigh of relief as the last photo landed on its designated spot. Each bagged up our haul, promised to make requested copies and resolved to take on another batch next summer. We shook our heads as we stared at the remaining tubs, wondering how we ever thought we could get through them all in one day.
I jumped up. “Wait a minute! Everybody line up for a picture.”
I grabbed my digital. Automatic flash. Automatic focus. Push a button to delete the bad ones. (Dad would have been impressed.) Caught up in the moment (and the relief of completing the picture-sorting task), I clicked close-ups and not-so-close-ups and every possible angle until at last “cheese” turned to “STOP!”
Sheesh. Didn’t they know what those pictures were worth?
DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, SD, the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. She attended school at Erwin and De Smet. Married Vicar Robert Kruempel and lived in Benedict, ND, Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley, IA. The author now resides on an acreage near Logan, IA and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of five books, "Promises to Keep," which are available at Amazon.com.