It's hard to get everyone to stand still and deliver. Beth Hall wonders how the Royal family makes this look easy
Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
I'm not a huge fan of family photos. Granted, we've come a long way from the sepia prints of our ancestors, those stern images of uncomfortable looking relatives where no one was allowed to smile and everyone had the same blank expression. At least today, a bit of personality can shine through given the right variables in the millisecond before the shutter clicks. But the idea of positioning a group of people in an unnatural tableau and having them look straight ahead at a designated spot in the middle distance strikes me, at best, as rather contrived.
I prefer the candid family photos in the old yellowing albums with the plastic pages, the pictures we didn't frame, but the ones the kids like to pull out and have a good laugh over when they come home. Such as Uncle Howard making his famous camel face or Aunt Mary chain smoking her umpteenth Cameo menthol in one hand, with a rye and Coke in her other. It's easy to tell the stories that go along with these captured moments and to bring the characters to life for our grandchildren who will never know them.
Still, family gatherings almost always demand a group photo to mark the occasion and, although they don't really tell the whole story of the event, at least they show who turned up. Most of us will have dozens of these stashed away in our drawers or in boxes in the attic. A few special photos warrant a frame and a spot for public display, but only if they pass the vetting process, which usually means the photo is considered flattering to the person doing the vetting.
This Christmas, there were 18 of us gathered, the first time ever that all members on my side of the family have managed to be in the same place at the same time. My mother, my brother and sister and their partners, all our children, and our children's partners, and a couple of children's children combined to make it a four-generation event. It was an accident, really, and just as well – had we tried to plan the gathering, it would be doomed to fail. Inevitably, as in every time before, someone would be missing and the family photograph would be incomplete yet again. Instead, there was no grand plan, no expectation that everyone would make it and it just unfolded, organically, as if by magic.
So this became the year of the photo. Realizing we were all going to be together, complete with spouses and partners and children and grandchildren, there was no question that we had to capture it on camera.
My husband volunteered to be the photographer; after all, he's recently gotten into photography and has a shiny new camera with lots of buttons and gizmos. No tripod, though, so the first challenge was trying to find something to set the camera on at the right height to use the self-timer. Well, actually, the first challenge was trying to figure out how to use the self-timer, but that's another story. Stacking books on the dining room table created a makeshift, unsteady tripod, but good enough for our purposes if it didn't topple over like a literary Jenga tower. Then, the crowd had to be corralled and assembled into some sort of logical grouping, which sounds simple enough, but wasn't. The will was there, but the distractions proved many and people kept drifting off for various reasons. It wasn't until my 91-year-old mother banged her cane on the floor to announce she was off to bed that we realized now was the time we had to make this happen.
My brother took charge with the precision of a military tattoo director. Inside of a minute, he had us all positioned, with our mother holding the place of honour in the middle as the common link between us. Her two great-grandchildren had been up since 5 a.m. (for Santa) and by now, at 8 p.m., were running on nothing more than a Christmas-sugar high, but if we moved quickly, we might make it work. How does the Royal family make this look so easy?
"One, two, three – say 'Cheese!'" Click, and my husband dashed back across the room to get in the camera's range before the timer triggered the shutter. Once more for good measure and we called it a wrap.
The photo won't win any awards. The kids are a little blurry because it's just too hard to sit still at the end of a long day that started with Santa; a couple of us are looking somewhere other than the camera; an arm obscures half of someone's face; and a television set is inconveniently taking up far too much space. But the possibility of taking a photo of 18 people with everyone in focus, looking at the camera and smiling their best smile, is only surpassed by the impossibility of getting this group together in the first place.
I think I'll buy a frame.
Beth Hall lives on Salt Spring Island, B.C.