I think it’s safe to say that life has changed a significant amount over the decades, but I’m glad to see that though some traditions, things that were present when I was growing up (I’m all about traditions) are coming back, or at least have the potential to, particularly when it comes to vacations and how we remember or re-live them.
Let’s travel back in time 30 years or so and look at photography and how we took pictures on family trips. As a family, we didn’t fly very often, so most of vacations involved stuffing the five of us into our station wagon, garnished with a fake wood-grained exterior, stiff vinyl seats, roll-down-the-window type air-conditioning, and a radio that only picked up stations when you were within 10 miles (back then it was miles of course, not the silly little kilometers we have today) of a major city, and even then you were lucky if it wasn’t complemented with a good layer of static. Or worse-yet, if it was a choice of Country-Western or Country-Western! No offense, but when driving down highway number one from Winnipeg to Vancouver, you didn’t get a heck of a lot of choice when it came to radio stations.
Heading west in our 'trusty red steed'. I can't remember if this was our camping spot, but I do remember at times in some camp sites having to pay extra for trees.
On these yearly family trips, our dad was always the official photographer. Mom occasionally and reluctantly had the camera in hand, but when asked to take a group photo, she had a nasty habit of loping off peoples’ heads about half way down - using the viewfinder interior framing, of course! I also have a great aunt who, no matter who she was taking a picture of, managed to somehow include her favourite china cabinet in the background, always exclaiming to her husband afterwards with innocence, “now how did that get in there?” That comment was always followed by a sheepish yet sneaky furniture-loving grin.
Sparing the heads, this time my mom mercifully cut my Uncle Bill, Uncle Mike, Auntie Lorraine and my dad off from the waist down rather than cutting off their heads.
So for our family, the duty ultimately fell to dad, and it was a task that he loved. He equipment consisted of an old Pentax SLR carried on a thin strap around his neck, a side-mounted flash, and a tripod, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Everyone in life has their talents, and my dad – his calling in life was the art of lining up our family members at any significant occasion or family gathering in a snap. Just to note - I’m not quite sure if our dad would take pictures because we were dressed up, or if we dressed up because our dad was taking pictures. I may never know. Not cause my dad’s no longer with us – he is (with a fancy new digital camera of course, never far away). He just doesn’t give away his secrets easily, especially when it comes to photography…or mushroom picking spots.
A classic 'family with Western visitors' shot in front of the house. I don't know exactly what had pissed off my brother (far right) to get him to make that kind of expression, but if I knew what it was, I'd gladly do it again just to see if he'd have the same look. I'm the innocent looking one with the lego creations.
Under the guidance of our father, our posing for the camera became a family ritual. When on vacation, if we happened to pass by an outrageously sized icon of our current or past culture (for example: Babe and his Blue Ox, a giant fish posed as if in mid-leap from the water, a giant moose outside of Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, or even the world’s largest Ukrainian Easter egg at Vegreville, Alberta), we stopped - and we posed. If we were on a ferry crossing from the mainland to Vancouver Island, we posed. If we were driving along a mountain highway and there was a grizzly bear with a sledgehammer breaking into someone else’s station wagon parked in the lot of a hiking trail, we’d stop and pose for that too. Of course that never really happened, but I’m pretty sure my dad secretly would have loved to have arrived at such a scene, and I know his camera would be ready with a fresh roll of 36, locked and loaded.
Above: Mom, Paul Bunyan and his oddly small feet. Below: The giant Easter Egg (also known in the Ukrainian community as a pysanka) in Vegreville, Alberta. As you can see, any obscenely-sized easter egg always brings eternal happiness and blissful dancers.
For the majority of families on vacation back then, taking pictures was very different. Without the ability to preview what you just took, you never knew what you were going to get until you had the film developed. This in itself made each frame of film more valuable than a room full of gold, and we knew that when we were given the extreme and rare privilege to hold the camera and actually take a picture, it wasn’t something we’d waste on silly or stupid faces (no matter how goofy my brother could look in a moment’s notice), not if we valued the idea of celebrating our next birthday. In our family, wasting even a single frame in a roll of film was on the same level as the rare treat of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and not cleaning the meat down to the bone – it just didn’t happen, or you knew there would be serious life-altering consequences.
A rare family trip to Hawaii when I was in grade 5. With years of experience under his belt, my dad would seek out interesting architectural elements to 'frame his subjects'. We were just happy to have something to hang off of.
Ultimately the vacation would unfortunately end, and we'd arrive back at home, where we’d peel our sticky legs off of the car seats and unpack our luggage from the back of the station wagon. The camera was quietly put away in the top shelf of the front closet, and the trip was declared officially over and usually soon forgotten as we’d get back into the routine of every day life at home. It was always so good to get back home, especially being the kind of kids who would typically sleep in late and then sit around the TV like summer-time zombies, wasting away most of the beautiful summer mornings watching shows like The Wheel of Fortune with Pat Sajak hosting. Hmmmm, maybe some things don’t actually change after all…
We’d be back into our regular lives, but about four or five weeks later the experience of being on holiday would all come back, usually complements of Canada Post. In the mail, wrapped neatly in a golden coloured envelope, the slides would arrive. We didn’t do prints in our family - we were full-bore slide projector aficionados with a giant white pull-up screen that as kids we loved to do hand shadow puppets in front of until the picture show started (I never could do anything better with my two hands than my impression of a duck, which, if it was ever manifested to life, would surely be shunned from any duck colony as the most horrifying and un-duck-like thing ever seen).
With the lights out and the soft hum of the projector, our dad would walk us through our vacation experience once again. It was glorious. Nearly life-sized on the screen, and sometimes with conveniently placed scar-like dust on the slide that made us look a little more dangerous than we normally were, we were there - and in the background, were all the wonderful and amazing places we had been.
My dad actually went through the pains of transferring each slide into a separate slide tray, labeled the paper guide as to who was in each photo, the date, where we were in the world, and then added the new collection to the racks of other collections sitting on his office shelves like over-sized Lego pieces, stacking their way closer and closer to the ceiling with each passing year.
The collection still exists today and is contained in about 3 very large boxes in my basement, sitting and waiting for the day when I decide to finally digitize them all so that I can have my own slide shows for my family. There likely will be no prints here I’m happy to say. We’re also really bad for taking hundreds of pictures on our digital cameras and letting them sit either on our flash cards or on the hard drives of our computers. It seems like the process of selecting images and uploading to a print service site is much more arduous than what we used to have to do when we’d take the roll of film out of the camera, drive it down to the photo store, fill out the pouch, then come back anywhere from one hour to one week later to pick up the slides or prints. Who says modern conveniences are actually convenient? At least that’s my excuse.
With computer monitors coming in at 20 inches plus and TV screens in the 40 to 60 inch range, I think it’s our chance as a family to take our holiday pictures and re-live them as I experienced pictures as a child. Of course we’re in the habit of previewing what we took in camera once we’ve taken a shot, but having it displayed in such a large size, complete with a fatherly narrating, is what truly makes it a wonderful experience.
And then I’ll be able to say, with pride, these are the days. Indeed.