By Christopher Cudworth
In the era of Facebook and Throwback Thursdays, when Facebookers post sometimes ancient photos of themselves for purposes of entertainment, it is interesting to consider how far we’ve come in terms of being able to share images from our past.
The proliferation of digital images in the Internet era has made it seem so easy to capture and share moments in our lives that it is possible to entirely forget a period when processing film and holding actual prints in your hand was a pretty laborious process.
Some photographers lament the supposed end of the printed photo. Yet it lives on in art the way that LP records lived on. Now LPs are making a comeback thanks to audiophiles who claim the sound is better. Perhaps we’ll all be printing more photos in the future?
We still have the capability thanks to home printers that are nearly as good as those formerly kicking out prints at 1-Hour photo shops. Remember those? The height of convenience we thought. Photos in one hour! Amazing.
If you go back to the age of Kodachrome (they give you those nice bright colors…give you the green of summers…makes you think all..the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah…) and even before that when color film was not all that common or affordable, there was the age of black and white photos.
High school yearbooks and sports programs were all printed in black and white. It’s like the whole world was black and white. No color.
Yet there’s a beauty to that era. Black and white photography has a frankness thanks to its reduction of distracting colors. You can better study form, shadow and structure.
Sports photos in black and white take us all back in time. Which is why, one summer afternoon doing a run workout on the campus where I attended high school, it was strange to find an old sports program jammed at the base of a chain link fence. I was walking around between mile intervals and noticed the somewhat frayed looking cover sticking out of some unmowed grass right next to the fence. The booklet looked a little familiar so I bent over and picked it up. Indeed it was an old football program from the year 1973. My junior year in high school.
It was 1983 when I bent over to pick up that program. The external pages were haggard and crusted from all the moisture and snow that had enveloped them over the years. Yet as I carefully opened the exterior pages the interior pages seemed relatively unharmed. Then I flipped to the middle of the program and there it was: A black and white photograph of my cross country team from 1973.
I stood there stunned, looking around in fact to see if there was some sort of practical joke being played on me. How else could a 10-year-old program survive ten long Illinois winters and still be intact?
But no, the spot in the grass where the program was embedded had no growth beneath it. This program was a genuine relic, a survivor from the time when at 17 years old I ran with a group of guys that did great things together.
We went 9-1 in the regular season dual meets, won the Kane County Championship, the District Meet and lost to a powerful Dekalb team in the conference meet. In fact the season was so interesting and profound that years later some competitors from a team at Elgin High School called me up with an invitation to get together again. One of their runners told me: “We could run together, maybe even hold a meet. Our rivalry was so good it would be fun to revisit.”
To me that was a pretty profound testimony that some special things had happened in that era. The chemistry of the team was amazing. Everyone was “all in,” even the cross country cheerleaders knew they were part of something special. The football team was 1-9 that year, and we were 9-1.
1973 was the year after Frank Shorter won Olympic Gold in the marathon and running was starting up its populist history along with the era of miling greats like Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori. And St. Charles was earning a worldwide claim to fame of sorts with the achievements of Rick Wolhuter, a St. Charles and Notre Dame University grad who would go on to set a world record in the 800 meters and earn an Olympic bronze medal. But that had yet to happen.
Our team in 1973 was the first year that St. Charles has done much in cross country. I had moved to St. Charles from nearby Kaneland High School where I was top runner along with a class guy named Bill Creamean. Then when I moved to St. Charles a new friend and former football player Paul Morlock switched from quarterback prospect to cross country guy. Everyone on the team stepped it up from there, and in our little way, we helped build the foundation for a running program that continues to excel to this day.
But still, what were the odds of finding that team photo stuck against a fence after a decade outdoors? I certainly treasure that somewhat crinkled photo because it was never used in the yearbook. Someone made the decision that year to dispense with formalized photos and go with a layout emphasizing the active life of teens in our school. That meant no team picture in the yearbook.
So it was a prodigal photo of sorts. But it wasn’t the only time something like happened to me.
10 years later in 1993 while walking into the Pepperidge Farm store at a strip mall in Geneva, Illinois, I glanced down at my feet while stepping over one of those low-slung cement parking barriers that keep people from hopping their cars up over the sidewalk. Sticking out from one end of the slot beneath the barrier was the edge of a magazine I recognized. It was a Playboy magazine from November, 1976. The centerfold in that issue was none other than Miss November, Patti McGuire.
I had once owned that issue, so I knew it well. But having thrown out my Playboys once I got married it was quaint to pick up that magazine and flip through the pages. The male memory retains such strange things. You instantly recall the photos your most liked in a Playboy. Even the articles, yes the articles, come rushing back to you.
So I stood there holding that Playboy in my hands as people walked past glancing at me a little nervously, I suspected. Who reads a Playboy in the parking lot of a hardware store?
Me, I guess. And the mystery of it could not be solved. I looked all around to see if there were other magazines strewn about. Had someone lost their collection somehow, dropping it on the way to the frame shop on the far side of the strip mall?
There were no other signs of how the magazine got there. Yet as I studied it and thought about how long the shopping center had been there, it seemed impossible that a Playboy magazine had survived through 17 Illinois winters in that parking lot. It was a little timeworn in appearance, yet here it was, with no explanation of how it got there, the imagination was left to roam. And Patti McGuire was still there in all her airbrushed centerfold glory.
Whether some people want to admit the fact or not, being featured in a magazine such as Playboy is an accomplishment of sorts. Sure, you could argue that it is nothing more than exploitation of women, and of natural beauty. Or, you could argue the female form has been celebrated throughout history in art. Playboy and other forms of nude photography is simply a technological extension, as it were, of previous art forms that had less capacity for detail. Of course we might now better appreciate the discretion shown by sculptors 2000 years ago who spared us the details in favor of the form.
One can hardly argue there is not a market for the stuff. Porn is a multibillion dollar online industry, driven manically further by the ability to capture and distribute digital images so readily. People even willingly submit photos and videos of themselves to porn sites. We’ve gone from an era when images were relatively rare and precious to produce to an era when selfies can be shared less than two seconds after they are taken. What does such rampant exposure to even basic images do to the human mind? That’s an experiment in progress. If you want to see human evolution in progress, just look around you. Visit your favorite social media site. We’re either evolving or devolving.
For me, the long term survival of that program I found by the school and that Playboy are mysteries to this day. Perhaps the Playboy had just been dropped recently. But that certainly wasn’t the case with the 1973 program discovered in 1983.
To me finding that old photo was a bit of destiny. Things like that happen now and then is this world. Someone finds an old photo in a box and tracks down the people in the picture somehow and a bit of history is revealed. Those moments are kind of like living fossils, a testament to the near and present evolution of the human race in all its forms. And that’s a beautiful thing, if you think about it.