How to time travel with family photos, and why everyone should have a hallway like Toppie’s
In my grandmother’s house there was a long hallway that was covered in family photos, from my mother’s bridal portrait, to a picture of my great grandparents’ wedding ceremony, to other family milestones spanning four generations. That hallway was like a time machine, connecting me to people and places, many of whom I would otherwise have never known.
When it was time for my grandmother, who we called “Mom Mom,” to move into assisted living, the photos were dispersed among our family, and many ended up in the home of Mom Mom’s younger sister, who we call “Toppie.” And so even though my grandmother died years ago, at the ripe old age of ninety-seven, her legacy lives on in the photos that now line Toppie’s hallway.
I am so grateful for this collection of family photos that gives our family the opportunity to connect with pieces of our history.
When I was a child, I didn’t give these pictures much thought. I would walk down the hallway from the kitchen to the living room on the way to watch TV, casually passing by the seemingly endless array of framed photos. But as I’ve matured, my perspective has shifted. Falling in love, losing loved ones, and feeling both heartbreak and joy have shaped how I view family and time, giving me an evolved sense of appreciation for both.
Now whenever I visit Toppie, I take time to look at these photos that line her hallway. I see each picture as a window into the past, and a chance to make new connections with some of the most important people in my life.
Some of these connections are to people I never met while they were alive. There is the portrait of my great grandparents, Aaron Toplitz and Sarah Kahn, taken shortly after their wedding in 1916. Even though I never got to have a conversation with them, I still get a glimpse of the people they were, in a way that only photography can convey. A sense of strength, pride and dignity.
And some of the connections are to family members I grew up with, but never knew when they were young. Take the photo of Mom Mom when she was 23 years old sitting for her bridal portrait. Seeing my grandmother at such a young age allows me to appreciate her in a different way: instead of knowing her only as the doting older woman who always had sixty-plus years on me, I see her as the confident young woman she had only told me stories about.
After all, Mom Mom was much more than the grandmother who spoiled me rotten—she was an amazingly talented woman who excelled musically, passed that gift on to her daughters, traveled the world, and pretty much said whatever she was thinking.
Seeing her in the context of this picture lets me connect with all of the stories she shared with me from her days of courtship, marriage, and raising children.
And of course there is the bridal portrait of my mother taken a few months before her wedding.
I love being able to peek at what life was like for them at the beginning of their marriages.
And while I wouldn’t change a thing about these wedding portraits, it’s an interesting contrast to notice that everything is so formal and posed. As a professional photographer, capturing unexpected moments is such a big part of what I do, and even though I know these images from the past are what was in vogue at the time, I would love to also see a photo capturing a natural moment of them laughing and having a good time.
A collection of family photos is sort of like a patchwork quilt—something to be passed down from generation to generation, and that offers both comfort and a unique understanding of the past.
I’m so grateful that I grew up seeing the photos in Mom Mom’s and Toppie’s hallways, and I’m even more grateful that my work documenting couples love stories may someday line similar walls.
By Jay Premack, Photographer
For the better part of the past decade Jay has been working independently as a photographer for newspapers, magazines, non-profits and a variety of businesses. His focus also includes documenting weddings with an approach rooted in his experience as a photojournalist, encouraging clients to be true to themselves, have fun and forget he’s there. Before going out on his own, he cut his teeth working for newspapers including the Boston Globe, Denver Post and Washington Post. Jay lives in Harpers Ferry, WV; surrounded by rivers, mountains, great cycling, and is just steps to the Appalachain Trail.