Old Photos, New Meaning: Why I Revisited My Storytelling Roots

National Geographic Education staff member Jean Shapiro Cantu wrote this post.

When the scans arrived, feelings of excitement and joy washed over me. 

Living in New York City in the 1970s, I took thousands of black-and-white photos of street life—of fathers with their children, workers on lunch break, and sunrises reflecting off skyscrapers. As I grew older and started a family of my own, I found I had less time for photography. For over four decades, many of my photos lay in storage, waiting to see the light of day.

Then last year I read about Wish of a Lifetime, an AARP charitable affiliate that helps people ages 65 and older fulfill their dreams. I went home and sent in an application that same day. My wish was to scan some of my old photos, and I was thrilled when the folks at Wish of a Lifetime informed me that my wish would be granted!

I majored in expository writing in college, but I developed an even greater passion—for black-and-white photography—after graduating and moving to Manhattan. Photography became an extension of my lifelong interest in storytelling. I would walk to my job at Oxford University Press early in the morning, when the light was especially beautiful. On Sundays, I found myself drawn to Central Park as if by a magnet. I would walk in and see a cross section of humanity. Wherever I went, I brought my camera.

The scan below, one of the first I received, shows a woman walking through the woods in Central Park. You can barely see her, but she is there amid the trees. I don’t remember taking this photo or several others that I had scanned. Looking at these scenes anew has allowed me to rediscover a special time and place in my life.

A woman walks through the woods in Central Park.

Working at the National Geographic Society, where I have spent 30-plus years acquiring media assets for our educational materials, has reinforced for me the power of photography. It has been an honor to share the work of great photographers with youth, educators, and families. Photos can be an amazing storytelling tool, and I began to appreciate this while living in New York.

I often found meaning and beauty in the ordinary: an office party at work; a Hasid and his son walking through Central Park; a man sitting alone in a café. Every face tells a story.

Another regular sight back then was women surrounded by pigeons. I couldn’t walk through Central Park without encountering a pigeon lady tossing crumbs or with birds on her lap.

I also took to photographing a particular mannequin I passed every day on my way to work. Laura, as I named her, stood in the window of a beauty shop on 34th Street. The shop kept switching her wig, and I documented her changing appearance.

Of course, making a photo in the ’70s required more than simply tapping a button. Once I finished shooting a roll of film, which was 36 photos, I would take it to a shop that turned the negatives into a contact sheet. It might be a week between when I took a picture and saw it, still in miniature, on a contact sheet. Then I would take the sheet to a darkroom, where I used a machine called an enlarger to begin the process of making actual prints. I did not have my own darkroom initially, so I joined the Camera Club of New York to use theirs.

I experimented with different types of paper. I tried paper I could color in with pencils after making a black-and-white print, as well as paper that allowed me to adjust a photo’s contrast. Doing this work felt like using an earlier, more hands-on version of Photoshop.

Although I printed many of my New York photos soon after shooting them, there remained some I never got around to printing. Those images lived on hundreds of contact sheets—organized and numbered, but relegated to the background of my life. As the years went by, I realized they were becoming vintage! My daughters and husband encouraged me to enlarge more of them, and that’s when I discovered the Wish of a Lifetime program.

This contact sheet is one of many I saved from my time in New York City in the ’70s.

I was thrilled when Wish of a Lifetime accepted my application to scan a group of photos, including many of New York in the ’70s and some that I took of my daughters. (I have a lot from my daughters’ early childhood, before they said “Enough, mom.”) Reconnecting with these photos has been one of the joys of my life.

I’ve always been interested in the subtleties of human relationships, and many of my photos reflect that focus. In other photos, the theme of loneliness predominates. Sadly, many people have faced loneliness and despair during the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope these photos will resonate with people who have experienced isolation from loved ones over the last year.

Early on, I did a lot of portraiture. People interested me more than landscapes. Now, with my iPhone, I’m taking a lot more landscapes. There’s a grove of trees across from our house that I like to photograph in different light and at different times of the year. Unlike shooting with film, digital photography provides instant gratification. Ultimately, though, I think the vision behind the camera matters more than the specific equipment one uses.

I no longer travel up Lexington Avenue to the Camera Club of New York, grab a hot dog outside, and spend hours in the darkroom developing photos. Yet photography has continued to play an important role in my life. One thing I know for sure is that I’ll always be shooting.

Learn from world-class National Geographic photographers, videographers, and visual designers in a series of Storytelling for Impact online courses in partnership with Adobe on how to use compelling photography, video, graphics, and audio to tell stories in the most impactful ways to effect change. Offered for both educators and youth ages 16-25, these short, free, self-paced online courses are designed to guide learners to visualize and communicate powerful stories that inspire action. The photography course is now open! Register here.

If you or someone you know is interested in learning more about Wish of a Lifetime or submitting a wish, please visit www.wishofalifetime.org.

You can get in touch with Jean over email at jeanshapirocantu@gmail.com.

All photos courtesy of Jean Shapiro Cantu

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