The Photograph Habit by Edgar Wilson Nye

Story type: Essay

No doubt the photograph habit, when once formed, is one of the most baneful, and productive of the most intense suffering in after years, of any with which we are familiar. Some times it seems to me that my whole life has been one long, abject apology for photographs that I have shed abroad throughout a distracted country.

Man passes through seven distinct stages of being photographed, each one exceeding all previous efforts in that line.

First he is photographed as a prattling, bald-headed baby, absolutely destitute of eyes, but making up for this deficiency by a wealth of mouth that would make a negro minstrel olive green with envy. We often wonder what has given the average photographer that wild, hunted look about the eyes and that joyless sag about the knees. The chemicals and the indoor life alone have not done all this. It is the great nerve tension and mental strain used in trying to photograph a squirming and dark red child with white eyes, in such a manner as to please its parents.

An old-fashioned dollar store album with cerebro-spinal meningitis, and filled with pictures of half-suffocated children in heavily-starched white dresses, is the first thing we seek on entering a home, and the last thing from which we reluctantly part.

The second stage on the downward road is the photograph of the boy with fresh-cropped hair, and in which the stiff and protuberant thumb takes a leading part.

Then follows the portrait of the lad, with strongly marked freckles and a look of hopeless melancholy. With the aid of a detective agency, I have succeeded in running down and destroying several of these pictures which were attributed to me.

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Next comes the young man, 21 years of age, with his front hair plastered smoothly down over his tender, throbbing dome of thought. He does not care so much about the expression on the mobile features, so long as his left hand, with the new ring on it, shows distinctly, and the string of jingling, jangling charms on his watch chain, including the cute little basket cut out of a peach stone, stand out well in the foreground. If the young man would stop to think for a moment that some day he may become eminent and ashamed of himself, he would hesitate about doing this.

Soon after, he has a tintype taken in which a young lady sits in the alleged grass, while he stands behind her with his hand lightly touching her shoulder as though he might be feeling of the thrilling circumference of a buzz saw. He carries this picture in his pocket for months, and looks at it whenever he may be unobserved.

Then, all at once, he discovers that the young lady’s hair is not done up that way any more, and that her hat doesn’t seem to fit her. He then, in a fickle moment, has another tintype made, in which another young woman, with a more recent hat and later coiffure, is discovered holding his hat in her lap.

This thing continues, till one day he comes into the studio with his wife, and tries to see how many children can be photographed on one negative by holding one on each knee and using the older ones as a back-ground.

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The last stage in his eventful career, the old gentleman allows himself to be photographed, because he is afraid he may not live through another long, hard winter, and the boys would like a picture of him while he is able to climb the dark, narrow stairs which lead to the artist’s room.

Sadly the thought comes back to you in after years, when his grave is green in the quiet valley, and the worn and weary hands that have toiled for you are forever at rest, how patiently he submitted while his daughter pinned the clean, stiff, agonizing white collar about his neck, and brushed the velvet collar of his best coat; how he toiled up the long, dark, lonesome stairs, not with the egotism of a half century ago, but with the light of anticipated rest at last in his eyes–obediently, as he would have gone to the dingy law office to have his will drawn–and meekly left the outlines of his kind old face for those he loved and for whom he had so long labored.

It is a picture at which the thoughtless may smile, but it is full of pathos, and eloquent for those who knew him best. His attitude is stiff and his coat hunches up in the back, but his kind old heart asserts itself through the gentle eyes, and when he has gone away at last we do not criticise the picture any more, but beyond the old coat that hunches up in the back, and that lasted him so long, we read the history of a noble life.

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Silently the old finger-marked album, lying so unostentatiously on the gouty centre table, points out the mile-stones from infancy to age, and back of the mistakes of a struggling photographer is portrayed the laughter and the tears, the joy and the grief, the dimples and the gray hairs of one man’s life-tine.

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