Off with Their Heads!

The following article first appeared on March 28, 2009, as my debut appearance writing The Humor of It…Through a Different Lens column for Shades of the Departed.  footnoteMaven has graciously allowed me to reprint my Humor of It articles here on What’s Past is Prologue.  I’m currently on hiatus writing this column for Shades, but I encourage you to visit the latest edition of the digital magazine for some excellent writing and photography!

When I was a child, I assumed that photography was an art form beyond the reach of mere mortals. It just had to be the most complicated thing in the whole world. But I didn’t think that way because of the “magical” nature of taking photos and seeing a two-dimensional image of yourself and your surroundings. No, I believed photography was a difficult endeavor because in most of our family photos we were missing our heads or other body parts.

Here is a typical photo session at the Pointkouski household, Christmas, 1968:

This is a family portrait of all four of us taken by my grandmother. The ear is my father. My brother didn’t make it at all except for the tiny hand on my shoulder. But that’s a lovely sofa, isn’t it?

Dad took this shot…we’re all almost in it!

Okay, Dad, I’m ready for my close-up! Even at not-quite-two-years-old, I was a child prodigy. You see, I had already learned the secret of how to get into a family photo – sit on the left. If you weren’t on the left, you didn’t get in!

By now, my brother has caught on. He’s slowly sliding me over on the coffee table. If he had slouched a little, he might have made it.

This photo had the borders cut off for some unknown reason, but it’s clear by our smiles that we’re elated – we just knew that by the thirtieth picture we’d both make it in the shot! Well, almost make it into the shot – my brother’s just a tad bit too tall to make it.

What’s funnier about these photos – the pictures themselves or the fact that my family actually saved them all these years? What exactly was the thought process here? “Well, it’s not too bad…look, you can see this is him by his left ear…” For families in the pre-digital age, even a bad photo became the sole remnant of a memorable event. Cameras, film, and developing were expensive! And you never saw the result until the whole roll of film was used up, taken to get developed, and picked up. So, at least in my family, these “bad” photos became as valuable as “good” ones because they were the only ones.

My mother quickly became dissatisfied with the results of her unique photographic talent for taking photos of her beheaded children. She simply gave up. I don’t think I ever saw her take another photo. “I can’t take pictures” became her personal mantra. Thereafter, Dad became the official family photographer. It was probably a good thing, too, because without mirrors in the home I would have grown up believing that I was missing an ear.

Mom was always blamed for the missing body parts, but Dad was an occasional culprit, too. Just because Dad was taking the photos, we still weren’t immune from having our heads cut off. It just happened less frequently than back when Mom was taking the photos.

This was my sixth birthday party. My guests were my friends and neighbors, the Ferguson girls. Unfortunately, Shona wasn’t as smart as her older sister, or she had yet to catch on to our family secret – stay to the left!

It’s ten years later and I’m now sixteen. I’m perfectly centered, but the view of the cake took precedence over my head.

I was used to it, though. This was me several years earlier. I was tall for my age, but not that tall! Can you notice the family resemblance between my and my half-headed brother from the earlier shots?

It took many years for me to discover that my family was not unique in this extreme photographic ability. In fact, there is even a name for it! What you see in the above photos is called parallax error. Now, to me that sounds like Star Trek plot number seven in which a transporter accident lands the crew in a parallel universe. But it really means that what you see isn’t always what you get because the viewfinder wasn’t necessarily connected to the lens. Older cameras, especially the inexpensive 126, 110, or point-and-shoot 35mm’s that my family used, had a viewfinder that was separate from the camera’s lens. So what appears to be “framed” in the viewfinder isn’t really framed at all by the camera lens itself, and it isn’t what the lens captures. See, Mom, it’s not your fault after all! It really was the camera!

Here’s another example from the never-before-published photo collection from a well-known genea-blogger who shall remain nameless to protect my new job as a columnist here at Shades. This is an attempt to capture MavenSon’s great catch. But wait – is that really him?

Like our family, which learned to scoot to the left to be seen in photos, the Maven’s learned a technique to keep their heads on – aim for the face only and hold that catch up high! See the result:

Nowadays, you rarely see the beheaded shots anymore. It’s a shame really, because they can be quite amusing. Today, most cameras have a single lens reflex that eliminates the parallax problem because what you see really is what you get. Many digital cameras don’t even have a viewfinder at all and instead use a screen to show you what the lens ‘sees’. When my mother first saw the 3 inch screen on my tiny digital camera, she exclaimed, “Wow – even I can take a picture with that!” And it’s true – my 3-year-old niece is able to take a well-focused, well-balanced photograph (obviously a child prodigy like her aunt). The only time her brother is missing a limb is when she tries to do that the old-fashioned way – by jumping on him to beat him up.

In the modern digital age, it’s time to say good-bye to our beheaded family photos. But, of course, there’s still a chance your family might see one. For even without viewfinder errors, there are still simply bad photographers. Here’s hoping we’ll see you in your next family photo session!

5 thoughts on “Off with Their Heads!

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It reminds me of a story a friend tells about a packet of photos she recieved from her mom while she was at graduate school. Apparently the photos were of some family function my friend missed because she was away at school. People’s heads were chopped off, the photos weren’t centered, there were pictures of fingers over the lens. The funny part was her mom sent a note with the photos, saying “I sent you the best ones.”

  2. Too funny. I had no idea there was a logical reason for all those cut-off photos!

    Your mom looks so glamorous in that first photo.

  3. What a hoot! We had the same type of camera, same camera problem, and same result. Unfortunately, my family threw out all those “bad” pictures and my mom adamantly refused to pick up the camera any more. She was teased mercilessly, who could blame her?

    The truly sad part is, nobody else in the family ever picked up the camera or bought a new one. So we have very few family pictures, except a few shared with us by extended family members that were taken with their cameras.

    I took up the challenge when I was in high school. I took 2 photography classes using the same camera and with only a couple exceptions, never had a problem with it. My mom wasn’t too happy about it. I know it made her feel bad that I could use the camera and get good results. I didn’t want to make her feel bad but I love having a camera in my hand. Still do!

    Thanks for sharing your terrific article, Donna!

  4. Great article and very entertaining/amusing. I think it’s something most of us can relate to but you do such a wonderful job of putting the parallax problem into words. And I agree, “parallax problem,” sounds like something straight out of Star Trek:)

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