hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

July 5, 2012

Poor Tom's Almanac: Pictures give us a perfect glimpse of life

Tom Vartabedian

Being a photographer by vocation — and avocation — I have a question and two observations to make today.

First, the question. How come children never carry around pictures of their parents and grandparents?

The observations? If a person complains that a photograph doesn't do him justice, it's probably because he really looks that way.

Only one person is quicker on the draw than a cowboy in a western shoot out. That's a woman with her grandchildren's photographs inside her handbag.

The best Christmas gift I could have received last December was a family portrait. How three children given their busy schedules could gather up six of their children and their spouses with their priorities and hightail it to a studio for a perfect pose is well beyond me.

It's one of those priorities in life that seem to escape us. In past years, we had each family handle its own photography. The plethora of school and sports pictures that covered our living room walls and bedroom dressers was immense.

Now, one picture of everyone was the perfect remedy, not that I would ever discard the others. What I have in my scrapbooks and photo albums is another matter — everything from that first baby step to a graduation. Every expression gets to be recorded.

It gets to the point that my children have issued a gag order. "Enough with the pictures," they tell me. "We don't need six of the same thing."

Hey, that's the inbred photographer in me. I remember the first time I tried having a studio photograph taken of my family. It would have been easier taking a Nikon apart and putting it back together.

In the past, I tried putting the camera on a self-timer, hoping to beat the click. I've recruited whoever was around a table to take the picture. In each case, the results were amateurish. Heads were cropped. Nothing was centered. Those on the end were suddenly missing from the group. Another time, they stood so far back with the camera, you needed a magnifier to see the faces.

I wanted something taken inside a studio with professional lighting by a photographer who really knows his business. To me pictures are a legacy. They are a huge part of a family's history.

I mentioned my need to friends while we were sitting at fireside over a glass of wine. It touched off a chain reaction. In essence, nobody had a picture of their entire family.

"We talked about it for years, then it was too late," one man said. "The children got older and began leaving town one at a time. How I wished I had listened to my conscience."

There were the weddings, he said, but on those occasions the portrait got cluttered with people who weren't actually part of the immediate clan.

Another said he had thought about having a portrait taken and then his oldest son was killed in an automobile accident. All he had left were a few school pictures.

That made my resolution firm. We were going to set a date for our family portrait. If nothing else, it would make my mom happiest. The woman was in her 90s and would cherish such a picture for her remaining years. She would have so many reasons to boast.

I circled the date on a calendar. Then I notified everyone and the reaction hit me like whiplash. The oldest one proclaimed he had nothing decent to wear when everyday work clothes would have sufficed in her case.

One of the boys had a hockey game he didn't want to miss. The other was busy with school work and told me if I wanted to see distinction grades, the family picture could wait.

A cold war was being waged over a simple photograph. Guess who lost?

The best I could do was take everyone's picture individually, point the camera at myself, get my wife to refrain from blinking, and place them all into a single frame.

So last Christmas, they handled everything. Not only did I get the entire family in one sequence, individual families were also posed. They took care of the frames and matted them handsomely. There were separate photos of the kids, grandkids, couples with different poses. I wound up with six pictures overall, each of them enlarged accordingly.

Now I had another problem. Where would they go? I couldn't very well hang one and not the other. Should you walk into my living room now, you will see one entire wall devoted to family art.

Not only are they decorating my home, but more so, they're covering up all the soiled spots and previous holes. For that I am equally grateful.

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Photographer and writer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.