Friday, February 18, 2011

Up on the Roof -- in the 1940s

These two heartbreaking photos are from the late 1940s: that's my mom and her middle brother Quentin and her mother above (and my mother and Quentin below) on the roof of their Brooklyn apartment building. They lived around East New York. While there were some aunts and uncles with money, my mother's family was as poor as they come. She was born in 1932; her father died from gas gangrene in 1942. Her mother, my grandmother, died of cancer in 1949 or so, probably within a year or two of this photo.

Around that time Quentin, shown here, joined the army to stay out of trouble and was eventually shipped off to Korea. As you can see here he was a cocky young hottie, and my mother says he was pretty much a juvenile delinquent. I'm not sure who took these photos. Their older brother Hubert, my uncle (who, like my mom, is still alive) had joined the army in the last year of WW2: it could have been him unless he was still off in occupied Europe. Uncle Quentin retired from the army in the 1960s and became a college art professor. He's been gone for over a decade.

My grandmother above and my mother below look so overwhelmingly burdened and stressed out. It seems atypical for family snapshots, though grandma Olivia (called Dot, I believe) doesn't seem to be smiling in hardly any of the photos of her I've seen. My mother's father's family was all Irish; Olivia's mother's family were German Jews who (although they had come to the U.S. long before Hitler) were passing as gentiles.

The stories my mother tells of growing up poor in the 1930s and 1940s are something else. But I'm certain that my own worldview and social consciousness comes straight from what my mom learned in those hard hard times.


  1. I love black & white photos and especially old ones. You can tell a story so much clearer without the distraction of color, leaving your eye to focus on faces, expressions and postures. Very interesting, ish. Thanks.

  2. Before digital photography I actually mostly put black and white film in my camera. I agree with you.

  3. pictures like this make the viewer picture a world that ACTUALLY CAME in black and white back then. it makes it seem so non-existant. my existence was barely determined at that point in time, as my mother's parents had barely had their first child by then. so interesting and existential!