Jun 26, 2023, 06:29AM

What’s So Funny About Family Portraits?

Throw in peace, love and understanding if so inclined. What year is it (#295)?

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The back of the photo above has a stamped signature/advertisement: “Donald C. Gessling/Commercial Photographer/722 New York Ave., Huntington, N.Y./Tel, HAmilton7-4914.” I might’ve gotten a few decimals and letters wrong—even with a magnifying glass—but what’s the diff, Stiff, if Mr. Gessling is still alive in 2023 he’d be a regular on The Today Show. And I ain’t seen him!

This is my family a long time ago, seven of us busting out in our best duds, and all the Smith brothers on good behavior (our mom is uncharacteristically subdued, perhaps because of the premature white hair that would go by the boards in a few years at one of the village’s beauty salons). The portrait was a five-year tradition, my parents’ idea—common in those days, as I’d see similar presentations on the living-room walls of friends in the neighborhood, probably also the work of the (perhaps) immortal Donald Gessling)—and as I remember it was always taken near my dad’s late-November birthday, undoubtedly time for the 350 Christmas cards, along with a mimeographed “state of The Smiths” (bursting with mostly good news, some incidents sanitized, as was the custom) that my mom would send out around Dec. 10.

In this particular gathering, I was in kindergarten and you’ll excuse me if I don’t have an exact recollection of the event (as opposed to earlier in the year, when, after consuming a big Easter basket over the course of a few days, I went to the dentist and 28 cavities were discovered, which required overnight surgery in my new green cowboy pajamas, waking up with enough silver and gold in my mouth to prop up the economy) but I do know that the reward for what was likely an excruciating 30 minutes was a rare fancy dinner, at this time probably Links Log Cabin in Centerport, which had burgers, steaks, chops and clams. I might’ve had a hot dog or burger, but definitely a Shirley Temple. I have three more of these portraits—from when I was less than a year old, to 10 and 15—but the tradition was skipped after my dad passed away.

Have to agree with the cliché/truth that a long time ago adults looked older than their actual age—my dad is just 43 here, and my mom… well, even though she’s been gone 40 years now, I’ll be a gentleman and just say, as was SOP parlance then, that she was 29. What I find surprising in looking at this photo for the first time in years, is that the three youngest boys are all wearing bow-ties—clip-ons—and if Doug, standing, far left, a teenager then, put up a rumpus at the house when the five-minute warning was sounded, who could blame him? The big boys—no glasses for the pic—are wearing pretty cool pre-Carnaby St. skinny ties that have gone in and out fashion, although aside from my clothes-horse son Nicky, no one wears ties anymore. Incidentally, can I get a witness here applauding the fact that those leisure suits of the mid-1970s have never been recycled? (The only man I knew who could rock a leisure suit was my Uncle Pete, and despite the bias, my mom’s younger brother, born in 1920, could wear one of those costume bathing suits from 1904 and look like a dandy ready for whatever came his way.)

I am now 68, and though wading in nostalgia isn’t a every-day occurrence, it’s hard to avoid if you’re a packrat. Now that analog photography, for the most part, has gone the way of The Saturday Evening Post, I don’t suppose the family portrait is as big a deal in America, certainly not in a suburban, middle-class studio. Cell phone approximations, definitely, but not as formal or durable. We have a lot of photo notebooks still, which will pass down to our sons, and 40 years from now, I can’t even conjure the confused faces of those that look at them.

Take a look at the clues to figure out the year: The European Free Trade Association is established; Adolph Eichmann is captured; Ghana becomes a republic; James Spader is born and Ward Bond dies; the government of Laos is overthrown in a coup; The Beatles begin a 48-day residency in Hamburg; Jean-Luc Godard revolutionizes cinema for the first time; the first Playboy Club opens in Chicago; To Kill a Mockingbird is published; Cassius Clay wins his first professional fight; Stanley Tucci is born and Eddie Cochran dies; the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown” charts at #3 for the year; Alan Drury’s Advise and Consent wins the Fiction Pulitzer Prize; and The Apartment is a top film.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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