A thousand words

Alice Selig Harris and friends

Coming from a family of active amateur photographers, the (still) new digital age of photography has significantly changed the way I look at and convey my world, its events, my life, and my family. Gone are the days of, “Oh, no, I just got to the end of a 36-exposure roll and missed the perfect picture I’ll never get again.” With three expensive cameras sitting in my closet collecting dust, like many of us I now use my smart phone for most of my photographic pursuits. This is not such a bad thing: it’s always in my pocket ready to get, as DeWitt Jones says, “not just a good frame, but a great frame.”

My photographic interests have always been tied to my genealogical journey. There have been many surprises along the way, convincing me that, along with the importance of oral history documentation, photographic documentation of one’s ancestors can often tell much more than words on a page (with apologies and respect to the talented and gifted researchers, writers, and editors at NEHGS). Photographs can often tell us about our predecessors and the visual environment in which they lived and worked, the kinds of clothes they wore, hair styles, facial and hand expressions, and other relatives and friends who might also be in the photograph.

Three examples come to mind: my grandmother, Alice Selig Harris (1890–1991), very much a “Victorian,” was also known as the prankster of her generation. My favorite picture of her is with friends on a snowy road in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, throwing a snowball at the camera. Looks like she had a great arm!

Nathan Rosenau
Nathan Rosenau

A second example is of my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Nathan Rosenau (1835–1930), who came to this country from Bad Kissingen in Germany. Those who recognize me (if you don’t, check out the Staff Directory at Americanancestors.org/ Development) know I sport a moustache and modest beard. But not like the one of my forebear Nathan! Maybe I should! It’s impressive. Should I try?

The third example, and the one most poignant, involves my father (Bertram Harvey Solomon, 1908–1945) whom I never knew. He died late in October of 1945 (I was born in May of that year) of an embolism following a successful hernia operation. When my mother (Ellen Harris Solomon, 1914–2011) moved from her apartment in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to live with my brother (Richard Harvey Solomon, born in 1937), I was assigned the task of cleaning out her basement storage locker, which contained several canisters of 16-mm film I had ever seen before.

Bertram Harvey Solomon
My father

I took the film to a local camera store and watched, absolutely fascinated, the remarkable footage of my father, pre-1945, at my older brother’s birthday party (along with assorted other recognizable family, friends, and neighbors and another brother, Tommy [1939–1944]). Other moments captured him playing golf, in the ocean at Atlantic City, and, with my mother, at the furniture factory they represented in Hickory, North Carolina. This was an emotional experience, and brought tears to my eyes. I finally had “met” the man – my father – whom I never knew except through stories from my mother and his mother (Katherine Harvey Solomon, 1879–1973). What a difference a photograph or film can make in getting to know more about one’s ancestors!

About Steve Solomon

Steve’s development career in Boston has focused primarily in the cultural, conservation, and academic communities, as chief development officer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Mass Audubon, Peabody Essex Museum, Museum of Science, and Boston Ballet.

8 thoughts on “A thousand words

  1. Steve – A wonderful story. My father was a fairly active amateur photographer in his early years and I’m always thankful that he preserved many photographs of the pre-war years and of his service in World War II. And yes, I think you should try to match Nathan’s beard.

      1. Thank you for sharing your great story, but don’t bother with additional facial hair, you are handsome as you are!

  2. Happy New Year Steve, I enjoyed your reflections on how family photos enriched your understanding of your family, particularly the father you never got to know. I think that is true for many of us. it was fun to see the resemblance to Nathan, but “no” I think you should keep your current look.
    Diana in San Francisco

  3. Steve,

    I too would vote against trying to emulate Nathan’s mutton chops. It’s hard to imagine the toast crumbs and critters it would accumulate. Your current look is much easier to keep trim, too, I’m sure!

    As for finding the stash of your father’s pictures, that story brought tears. I knew my father until his death at 84, and am still very grateful for his love of picture taking. When my siblings and I stumbled on the album our mother kept the year of their courtship, we learned a great deal we hadn’t known about them.

    Later, he turned to 35 mm slides, and we’ve got about 10,000 of them stored between the siblings’ homes. Dad had a great chronological organizational scheme, but I remember being at his home once when a dozen or so metal boxes came tumbling down from the shelf when company requested a “show.” Those never got sorted back into order, and we don’t know which are the messed up ones. I tried to scan a few from one of the boxes and by internal evidence dated them from 1954 to 1983! Because he loved scenery and took too many on multiple trips, we’re loath to pay a commercial company to scan them all and sort later. So we just haven’t done it. The color, of course, isn’t at all true any more, especially, for some reason, on the more recent ones I’ve looked at.

    1. Hi Doris: thanks for your nice note! I keep thinking about all the photographs I’ve taken (digital and otherwise) and what and how we’ll leave to our children. BTW, I was in Seattle last November visiting with several members there and on Bainbridge Island, We may plan a members event there next year. All the best, Steve Solomon

  4. Many years ago I went with my father to visit some of my second cousins and there families as well as visiting where they had lived and were buried. Several of those cousins had wonderful, informal pictures from the 1880’s up to 1915 or so. Pictures of great aunts and uncles at parties, great grand mother working in the kitchen and the like. It was astounding to me to see pictures like these from the time period and made me see all of those family members in a very different way from the usual formal portraits I was used to.

  5. This reminds me of a studio picture acquired of my great grandfather, Robert Winchenbach 1811-1892. I scanned the picture to have a digital copy, then enlarged it for a better view. To my surprise, he had a loop earring in his left ear ! The information old pictures provide !!

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