Exploring family history through photos and negatives in the attic

Journalist Dave Paone took an added interest in family history after finding a box of unprinted negatives and long forgotten photos in his mother’s attic.

Every family has one: a box of family photographs. Some have faces you know, some have faces that are vaguely familiar and some are from generations past and the faces are unknown. 

For me, this box was a cardboard carton kept in the basement during my childhood in the 1970s. On occasion, I’d peruse its contents and then forget about it until the next time.

Sometime in the late 1980s, my mother moved the carton to the attic. Out of sight, out of mind.

My parents were of the World War II generation and purchased their house in Malverne in 1958. I’m the fifth and last child, born in 1964, with three brothers and one sister, born between 1951 and 1960.

Shortly before my mother’s death in 2009, she told me I was to inherit the carton of photos. After her death, I decided to give them a good look — not just an uncommitted glance as I had several times before.

I started rummaging. There were lots of photos I recognized, ranging from my mother’s aunt (whom I knew in her final years) to family gatherings from when I was just a baby.

The author’s father, Don Paone, with two photos of his younger self. (Credit: Dave Paone)

Then I found it. A small envelope from a camera shop in Naples, Italy. I knew this was the sort of envelope that contained prints and negatives when one has a roll of film developed at such a shop. What could be in this one?

I opened it to find a dozen two-and-a-quarter-inch, black and white negatives — a full roll of film — taken by of a bunch of servicemen. They were in pristine condition.

I was a photojournalism major in college in the 1980s and still had a fully operational darkroom in the basement. I couldn’t wait to make a contact sheet of the negatives, which I did almost immediately.

I couldn’t believe these pictures! They appeared to have been taken in Pompeii, Italy, which I later confirmed. My father was featured in three shots. He had risen to the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, in the U.S. Navy by this point, at age 23.

Sometime later I printed 8-by-10s of two of them. Since the negatives were in such great shape, the prints turned out very nicely.

But there were more.

I found a negative taken at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens. It was a photo of my mother and another girl, both 16 year old. My mother and her two closest friends took a photography class at Girls’ High School in Brooklyn and one friend is in the shot. I’m assuming the second friend took the picture.

What I love about this one isn’t just the 1939 hairstyles and saddle shoes, but that they’re standing in front of replicas of the Trylon and Perisphere, the two recognizable icons of the fair.

This negative has two small imperfections — one from being in a basement and an attic for 70 years and the other from when it was developed. The photographer sliced off a corner of the image when she cut the negative.

There were more than just negatives. There were also some prints that had remained in great condition.

I found a portrait of my father taken his first year of college (1940) and his Navy portrait (possibly 1943). I once photographed him holding both pictures, which is an old photojournalism technique. He died a few years later and I’m glad I did.

Shortly before my mother’s death, she labeled many of the pictures of her relatives. There was a family studio portrait labeled “The Glus Family,” cousins of my great-grandmother. It appears to be from the 1920s. While the cardboard mounts are damaged, the actual photographs look great.

There was another studio portrait of my great-grandfather in excellent condition (except the cardboard mount has a damaged corner). He was born in 1853 and is about 30 in the picture, so that dates the print to about 1883 and the thing looks great.

However, there are other stunning studio portraits, which appear to have been taken around 100 years ago, in fabulous condition and I have no idea who these people are.

All of this is a testament to black and white film. The color photos from my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary party in 1974 have all faded, as have all the color photos from by brother’s 1984 wedding.

If exposed in the camera correctly, developed and printed in a darkroom correctly and stored correctly, black and white photos shot on film will look great and last forever.

Some of the studio portraits are over 100 years old and look great. The World War II negatives are over 70 years old and look great. Darkroom technology has changed very little since then, which made making prints possible.

Try opening a file on a six-inch floppy disk or a three-and-a-half-inch floppy disk today. They’re obsolete. At some point SD cards will also be obsolete. Black and white negatives can be printed any time.

I encourage everyone to find their cartons of family photos and peruse their contents. You just might find some buried treasures. I certainly did.