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Book Review: Dear Photograph by Taylor Jones

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“The sun always shone brighter when our grandmother was beside us.” ”I wish we could live it all over again.” “I realize now that father knows best.” These are the typical sentiments voiced in Dear Photograph, a collection of photographs in which a vintage print is held up and aligned to a view of the present day. If Hallmark-commodified emotions are your bag, then this is the book for you. But does anybody really want a 250-page greeting card?

Twenty-one year old Taylor Jones was living with his parents when he struck on the idea that became the popular website DearPhotograph.com, which is populated with reader submissions that compare our photographic past to the present. It’s not a new idea. Rephotography existed long before “going viral.” Sleeveface and other sites feature photos aligned to other contexts. It’s a fun idea, and one with potential for both historical observation and excessive sentimentality. Guess what wins out.

I am not unsentimental. I buy corny greeting cards for my father, I cry at manipulative rom-coms, I spend hours looking through old photos at flea markets. The combination of family photos and text doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But even if you respond to greeting card platitudes more than I do, would want a whole book of them?

It would be churlish to complain about the the genuine feelings contributors have towards their family members, or even their former, younger selves. But reducing what must be rich family histories to easy platitudes doesn’t honor the past so much as relieve it of any personality. Centuries of personal history have gone into the hundreds of photos gathered here, but instead of generating a powerful emotional charge, the cloying sentiment gets old fast.

Doesn’t anybody have more colorful stories to tell? As photography books go, this is a generous 250 pages, and the photos included could have offered something to the armchair historian. A photo of a John F. Kennedy motorcade doesn’t line up very well with the modern counterpart in Paterson, NJ, but must have been included for historical purposes. Selected images reveal a dramatic passage of time: landscapes that have been stripped of foliage and communities leveled by the elements. But we’ll never know the deeper stories behind them, and these specific narratives are overwhelmed by trite generics. Dear Photograph is the Thomas Kinkade of photography books, for those who like their sentiment easy.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.