How to Make Good Pictures

Like millions of other Americans living during the mid-20th century, my grandfather contributed to the popularization and growth of the photographic medium.

He saved up for and purchased a Leica IIIf camera sometime after 1953. The inflation adjusted cost for the camera averages about USD 1900.00. If you know anything at all about Leica cameras, this price is a steal, even in today’s dollars.

The Army Aircorp probably taught my grandfather the basics of photography. He photographic top secrets targets as part of aerial reconnaissance and surveillance flights. After the Army discharged him in December 1945 he joined the American Photogrammetric Association.

Everything became a subject for my grandfather. He shot almost 4,000 photos and slides that I have in my possession. Many more are probably part of the now-defunct Climax Molybdenum Mining Corporation. He shot publicity photographs for the company.

W R Allen Photgraphy

Most photos focus on everyday life: skiing, exteriors shots of vacation destinations, photos of his children. His camera documented ordinary people participating in their daily lives. Recreation like skiing, great events like World War II, cultural phenomenon like the 1963 World’s Fair in Queens, NY offer social historians avenues to understanding how people lived their lives.

Questions of how interest me as much as who when I study genealogy. My training as a social and cultural historian probably accounts for this fact.

Of course names and dates provide vital clues about my family. But so do questions of how they spent their free time, how costs of leisure have changed, how 5 enlisted personnel during WW2 supported a single infantryman, how the geography of a community shapes so many of their options in life. The photo of my father and grandmother in front of and on a very early ski lift depicts changes already happening in the ski industry by the late 1950s.

Prior to ski lifts people hike or drove up mountains and skied down.

My grandfather’s photos reveal a lot about how Times Square in New York City and a small town like Leadville have changed over the last 60 to 70 years. The Climax moly mind and company town no longer exists as it did in the photo below. All the houses were moved down to Leadville and the mine shuttered. All that exists of the company store across from where this photo was taken is a collection of tourists boards describing what used to be.


Changes in technology can also show up in family photos.

Check out the drills the miners used in 65 years ago. Improvements in hydraulics and metal casting have changed for the better this vital mining tools.


I believe my grandfather was a good photographer. He understood photographic composition and the all-important role light plays in a photograph. As with the many other amateur photographers in America, he advanced photography as a documentary, art and cultural medium. If he were alive today, I think he would probably still be shooting on his Leica III and probably an iphone.

Family photos can tell each of us so much about our family and our community histories. Revel in them. They can often fill in gaps missing in family legend. Think about sharing them in a public way, if you can. We all learn from one another.

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