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Published April 14 2012

Swift: Pictures from 1970s fodder for ‘Awkward Family Photos’

I’ve been hearing people rave about the comic genius behind the website “Awkward Family Photos.com” for some time now.

This site demonstrates the “perfect storm” of photographic disasters. It’s what happens when a bad idea (“Let’s wear our renaissance costumes in our engagement photo!”) fuses with bad home perms and a criminally incompetent photographer.

It’s hard not to love this site. But when my younger friends howl over how hilarious it is, I feel the need to put it in perspective. I want to turn to them and say: “Most of my childhood photos belong on that website.”

It’s true. I grew up in the 1970s. This was not a great time for fashion, hair, eyewear or home photography. My sister went to her 1978 prom sporting a Dorothy Hamill haircut and a pleated, polyester dress that looked like a dust ruffle for Barbara Mandrell’s makeup table.

We thought she looked beautiful. Not only that, we photographed her up against the front door with her leisure-suited prom date, whose head was partially cut off by Mom.

This decade spawned photo technology like the Pocket Instamatic 110, an inexpensive camera that was compact and affordable. It also produced photos that were uniformly dark, murky and blurry.

The Instamatic caused such an epidemic of red eyes in the family album that Mom used to have us sit down and color in all of the flaming pupils with black, fine-tip Bic markers. This trick corrected the photo subject’s conjunctivitis, but also gave one the black, soulless stare of a shark.

The problem is that these cameras relied on disposable “flash cubes” for light. The cube allowed the photographer to take just four photos before it was burned out and needed to be thrown away.

I once tried to explain to my teenage niece that old cameras once came with disposable cubes of light and lacked a little preview screen where you could tell how the picture turned out. She looked at me as if I’d just announced I used to ride a musk ox to school every day.

Yet I can understand why this is a foreign concept to her. In the age of affordable, high-quality digital cameras, the average young person today has been photographed 500 times before she’s taken her first step.

In fact, if you point a camera at my niece, she will instinctively lower her chin, tilt her head and turn into Kate Moss. She’s been conditioned by years of photography to do so.

We did not have that luxury in the 1970s. Candid photos were almost always badly lit, shot from too far away and framed so that Uncle Marvin’s jackalope antlers sprouted straight out of your head.

Even attempts at formal portraiture were unfortunate. One of my favorite Swift family portraits illustrates the many shortcomings of 1970s-era amateur photography.

As the light switch on the wall suggests, this was not a studio portrait – although we did our best to suggest it was by moving all the living room furniture into another county. (We may also have done this to make room for all of the bouffant hairdos.)

From an “AFP” standpoint, there is much to appreciate here.

Perhaps it’s the assemblage of hairdos – with the exception of my sister Verbena, who obviously was going through a rebellious Marcia Brady stage – that attempt to make us look exactly like our mother.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I am wearing the ugliest shoes known to man (that’s me, shown front right). You may ask yourself who willingly wears bowling shoes with their dress clothes.

According to this photo, I do.

But my favorite part of this photo may be the look of sheer terror on my brother’s face. It’s almost as if he just realized he would have to spend the next 18 years surrounded by women.

The only person who looks great is my dad. He manages to look quite dashing, despite the fact he’s holding an agitated, crying child and is surrounded by the overwhelming aroma of Aqua-Net, Charlie perfume and estrogen.

If a picture says a thousand words, this one says just five.

“Get me out of here.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525 or tswift@forumcomm.com