When I purchased my new Kodak scanner a short while ago I had no idea it would open up my own family’s history and give me the opportunity to explore and remember the stories that went along with so many of the prints that had been sitting in drawers and boxes for all these years.
Seeing those prints, sometimes for the first time in years, inspired me to find a chronology to my family’ life and stories, drawing on my own memories and starting conversations with my mother and other family members for further information.
The result was some postings on Facebook, and the response was surprising and gratifying. People love stories and I was fortunate to have some compelling ones. I compiled here the first twelve I did and will be adding more as I go along. I have no idea where this goes, but I hope it inspires others to seek out their family history and enjoy the rewards and clarity that I received.
There is a deep satisfaction that comes from putting your family history in order. What was once a mish mosh of photos and stories, and perhaps home movies and other memorabilia, became a cohesive chronology of a rich family history. When it comes to your own life story, remember you are the only one uniquely able to tell it. Explore it, play with it, have fun with it, and pass it on.
Click on title or photo to see the larger and additional photos
I’ve mentioned many time that my Grandfather, Boris Lenoff, owned and ran a portrait studio on the Coney Island Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. It later moved to Ocean Parkway and probably closed sometime in the sixties when he sold off the entire inventory of cameras and photo files.
Back then a photographer had to be more than just good at taking pictures, they had to be a chemist; making all their own chemical baths for developing film and prints, a mathematician to figure out exposures and lighting ratios, an artist who could artfully retouch prints with pen and brush, and a social director who knew his neighbors and could work with kids and get them to sit still in front of the camera.. The latter probably being the most challenging task of them all.
Shortly after I was born, I started to have my picture taken by my Grandpa, in what would become a regular routine. I, and sometimes my cousin Michael, were shuttled out to Brooklyn for photo sessions, posing in an array of diapers, blankets and period piece outfits of questionable taste.
What is so strange to me as I sit here and view these photos today is that they look so vintage, as if I was looking at some historical photos of a child in a bygone era with stiff poses and clothing so out of fashion they never even came back in fashion in the past fifty years. An old prop plane in my hand in one photo is also kind of telling.
But it is me. I guess I’m vintage, at least my childhood is.
A lot of what contributes to this disconnect is the style the photos are done with. Not quite the Stepford family creepy smile look that one might find from a typical Sears Portrait, but the softness and look is of a certain era. And then there is the fact that it is in black and white, this alone would indicate to someone like my 13 year old son that the photos might have well be taken during the Civil War.
I put my photos in chronological order and saw myself age from a few months to about six years old, when my Grandfather probably closed the studio and retired.
There is a certain perspective and completeness that one can only see when viewing one’s life in this chronological order. It is something I have been doing with my photos. Scan your old photos, create a time line and watch your life, well, come to life. Hopefully you won’t be vintage like me. More photos here…
In 1974 my brothers Tim and Nico took a trip out the Midwest to visit their grandparents. My stepmother Susan was originally from Minnesota but her parents had relocated to Missouri and so the family took off for the heartland. Along the way they stopped for a visit to Mount Rushmore.
I love this shot that my father took. The quintessential snapshot would have typically had my brothers facing the camera, framed from head to toe (because we all know how important it is to include footwear in meaningful family portraits), with the four presidents shrunk to minuscule versions of themselves in the background. My father was a good photographer however and he managed to catch this quizzical pose of my brothers tilting their heads to presumably enhance their viewing of the famous landmark (I must remember to ask them why one of these days).
In a way this kind of photo is more powerful as it forces the viewer to imagine the faces of the two curious boys while adding a bit of humor to the picture and keeping the presidents framed up clearly.
The photo of Tim water skiing on a lake in Missouri was badly faded. Sometimes with older prints, the inks fade at different rates, typically the blues, which leaves the picture with a reddish cast to it. I restored the photo a bit and brought back some of the original color, a little Photshop can go a long way.
I like the portrait of my brothers taken against the side of the house, it reminds me of some of the old WPA photos taken during the Depression by the likes of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange of workers photographed against barns and other structures out in the dust bowl. Probably a stretch considering the difference in attire and circumstances, but photos evoke what they evoke and that’s the beauty of it. More photos here…
…scanned from my archive. Boris Lenoff, Fire Island 1958. While growing up, there were always certain photos that seemed to be present, either in frames on the wall, taped to cabinets, stuck to the fridge or in one of the several photo albums lying around. My father and my mother’s father Boris, were usually the photographers of most of the family photos, so they aren’t present in as many of the family photos as other family members. Boris was a professional photographer, so like myself, he was usually much more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it.
So this particular image was always very important to me because it was one of only a handful of photos that had both my grandfather and me in it. It was also taken at one of my favorite places in the world – Fire Island. This was shot on the side of our house in Fire Island Pines with the big dune that protected us from the winds and our neighbor’s eyes looming behind us.
If you know Fire Island at all, you know it is all sand and dunes, so if you don’t like sand you are in a lot of trouble. I loved sand and I loved standing next to my dad or granddad and watching them saw, hammer in nails or do just about anything with wood. So I was a really happy kid in this photo, and by the looks of Boris, he was having a good time too.
Emotional connections with photos are made through repeated viewings, and that through that process we start to develop the visual narrative of our life story. The photos on our walls, our fridge and our family albums will always be the way I remember those parts of my life, and I was so lucky to have had so many great photos to tell that story. This one will always be one of my favorites. Larger photo here
…scanned from my archive. Mom, circa 1928. Mom just celebrated her 96th birthday last week. She’s here in LA, a long way from her Brighton Beach, Brooklyn roots, but she is close to her family, especially her grandson, and that is more important to her than geography. These are a couple of photos taken in her father’s photo studio which was located on the first floor of the apartment building she grew up in. The entrance to the building was on Brighton 4th street, but my grandfather’s studio was entered to directly from the Coney Island Boardwalk, just a hop, skip and a jump from the beach and the Atlantic Ocean. The studio awning prominently displayed its name - Boris Lenoff’s Photo Portrait Studio, and all family members were at one point or another required to pose for their picture.
My mom had her eye scratched when she was very young and was virtually blind in that eye all her life as a result. Now she has macular degeneration and is losing sight in her other eye. She can’t read anymore, so she listens to mystery novel after mystery novel sent to her by the Braille Institute, a truly amazing organization. Her spirits are high and her mind is sharp and I can only hope I am in half the shape she is if I am ever lucky enough to be a nonagenarian. More photos here…
…scanned from my archive, Rostock. I was recently contacted by Rostock University, one of the oldest universities in the world, founded in 1419. They are writing a paper about the women there that were the first ever to become Doctors of Medicine, my grandmother Gertrude among them. They were asking me for any documents and photos that might be helpful from that time in her life. Sure enough I found some old papers from her time there, as well as some remarkable photos from 1922 when she graduated. One is a beautiful portrait I have posted before; it luckily had the word Rostock on the back of the print. The other was identified by the University, and shows my grandmother and some friends sitting beside the river Warnow eating lunch and relaxing (that’s her in profile).
In looking over her old photos I came across these two others I found very powerful. This is one of her playing guitar along a country road with some young girls is from 1913, just before the outbreak of WWI. They of course had no idea of the horrors to follow and that sadly these bucolic scenes would be coming to an end, replaced by endless miles of trenches and bloody battles.
During the war she was a nurse, and while there were several photos of her treating wounded German soldiers, this one in particular was very striking; She in on the far right in her nurse’s uniform.
I am blessed to have so many photos from her life, but much of the caption on the back of the prints was in German and also hard to read. I sent many of these images to Rostock for them to review and they were kind enough to translate them and give me some additional background info as well. I learned so much about her as a result and I am looking forward to their final writings about her and her amazing achievement. More photos here
…scanned from my archive. As it is holiday time, I thought a few photos from what I would call my “Jesus Years” would be appropriate. From about 1972-1974 I looked like my hero at the time, George Harrison, and that meant hair down to my ass and a goatee. Although I was only 18, he was the Beatle I admired the most, probably because he was the main guitar player and I was aspiring to be one as well.
The first photo is from my High School graduation at good old Seward Park HS located on New York’s lower east side. The reason for the informal dress was I happened to graduate in January of 1972, 6 months earlier than the rest of the class of ’72. We held a brief and “come as you are” reception for which I felt a suede fringe jacket was just right for the occasion.
Shortly after my graduation, I moved out to San Francisco, the Haight-Ashbury to be precise. This is me in front of our flat, literally on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. The days of the Summer of Love were long gone and the neighborhood was run down as heroin had replaced LSD as the drug of choice for many. I don’t want to say how many of us lived in that flat, but lets just say it was very, very cozy.
The last shot was taken in Yosemite. It was the last leg of a cross-country trip in 1974 from NYC where I was retrieving some things for my permanent move to SF. I drove with my girlfriend at the time, Nicky and her friend, whose name I have long since forgotten, but who happened to conveniently have a false leg which was the perfect place to stash our pot for the trip out west in case we got stopped. He unfortunately had to take his leg off every time we wanted to light up, but it didn’t seem to slow us down much. More photos here
…scanned from my archive. I spent my childhood Summers on Fire Island, the Pines for the most part. They are some of my happiest memories: the beach; the dunes; digging for clams in the Bay; and even getting splinters on the boardwalk are the things childhoods are made of. There were no cars (a few jeeps) or even sidewalks in the Pines, I doubt that’s changed even now.
In the early fifties, just before I was born and our house was built, my parents and grandparents would camp out in the dunes with their friends. Some of these people, like my father’s friend Hildegarde, built shacks out of driftwood nestled in the dunes just a few feet from the beach. Protected from the winds but close enough for an early morning swim in the Atlantic.
Evenings would be centered around a bonfire where the days catch of clams and crabs would be devoured with some good wine and beer. It must have been a great time to be out there, no houses, no real estate, just endless miles of beach, dunes, sky and water. Halcyon days living only in memories and these photos I found a few years ago. See more photos...
…scanned from my archive. Hanging out of your building’s roof was a popular place to spend hot summer days in Brooklyn, especially before air conditioning. It was commonly known as Tar Beach. My family’s apartment building was located right on the Coney Island Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, so the cool ocean breezes were plentiful and my grandparents and my mom and her brother Jerry spent hours up t here cooling off, playing chess or any other number of “other activities.” Life was good, and the Drifter’s even wrote two popular songs that summed up life out there – Up on the Roof and Under the Boardwalk, the latter of which was probably a better and more private place for some of those “other activities.” The view wasn’t bad either. See more photos
…scanned from my archive. Looking over a bunch of the recent scans I did, I came across this un-retouched photo from 1954 of my parents in a rare (like never) intimate moment caught on film. Never really noticed this photo before, but as someone whose parents divorced when I was seven in 1961, there is a fascination with their relationship prior to the divorce. I think it simply stems from the fact that I have so few memories of them as a couple, let alone a loving one. I have watched my own son Luke go through my divorce, and he was around the same age as myself when my parents split. Children grow up with the idea that their parents are a single unit, it is an inconceivable thought that they can exist apart from each other. The separation is an earth shattering event at the time, and one which I don’t think ever really gets resolved because the basic premise is unresolvable. Children being the self-centered little beings that they are, inevitably blame themselves, that is the hard part to watch with Luke. Sometimes I think I learn more from him than he does from me. Too heavy for a Tuesday?
…scanned from my archive. My cousin Michael and I grew up together in Kew Gardens, Queens until I was six. We lived next door to each other and played together every day, and as you can see the activities usually involved some form of western motif. Posing for my grandfather at his Brighton Beach photo studio was a regular occurrence, and having us pose in diapers bigger than our heads for some reason must have seemed to our parents like the stuff memories are made of, I guess if for nothing else than to assuredly embarrass us in our adulthood. One infamous day Michael ran down the alley next to our apartment screaming out loud that he was finally out of those damn diapers. My tense outward smile must have surely belied the churning feeling in my stomach that I would only understand later as envy. I love my cousin, but damn you Michael, it should have been me! See more photos
…scanned from my archive. My best friend for several summers was Amy Fonda, Henry’s adopted daughter. We had a good time together, but she has a propensity for expressing her affection through biting, myself being the most convenient target for her oral expressiveness. Nonetheless, we had a good time making mud soup in my red flyer wagon and lolling around on our neighbor’s porch. I was developing a bad food allergy at the time to tree nuts, and had the misfortune to find out just how bad it was one day at Henry’s house, barfing up chunks of my Chunky bar all over his kitchen. The Fondas were very gracious about my unfortunate reaction and subsequent mess, but I don’t recall being invited back there after that. See more photos
…scanned from my archive. Fire Island Pines is all wooden boardwalks, no concrete at all. My friends, Scott, Jeannie and I decided to build our own boardwalk one day and got to work with our tool chest full of hammers and nails. I learned how to to build things from my Father whom I noticed after hammering a nail would yell “fuck!”, evidently a reaction from either hitting his finger, or just bending the nail as it went in. Not knowing the reasons for his expletives, I figured this is just how you do it, and would myself scream “fuck” after hitting every nail, causing much consternation amongst the neighbors and my friend’s parents. Out boardwalk to nowhere was eventually demolished as some people bought the lot it was on. Such is the way of gentrification. See more photos
…scanned from my archive. There are very few pictures of me with both my parents, this is one of the very few. Maybe there was a purge after the divorce. After I was born my parents lost three children in secession and that soon led to a divorce, not the happiest of times for them. Pretty standard Christmas fare for the 1950’s, a sled, a truck and a cowboy outfit. But what's up with that mangy tree? See more photos
…scanned from my archive. This is one of my favorite photos of my parents, the only one of my father wearing a yarmulke. My parents both came from extremely different backgrounds and that may have had something to do with their attraction to each other. My mother’s nice Jewish quiet home life may have seemed very stable and attractive to my father, while my father’s crazy German Catholic, running from the Nazis all over Europe, background may have seemed adventurous to my mother. Although I don't think adventurous is what my father would use to describe his childhood.
…scanned from my archive. My father’s early life entailed being shuttled around Europe to different schools and extended stays with various relatives as his mother and step-father kept on the run from rising Nazi powers. He talked to me about strict and abusive nuns at a parochial school, probably behind his life long dismissal of religion. When war broke out he was in Great Britain and so joined the british Army in hopes of fighting the Nazis. He knew that if he was captured with his family name of Bardenhewer, he could be shot as a traitor, so a phonebook in Trafalgar Square became the determining factor in his new name, a nice English name for a British soldier – Bennett. As things go, he ended up being shipped to Burma as a corporal in the tank corps and spent the war fighting the Japanese. See more photos
…scanned from my archive. Whenever I hear those two old Drifter songs, Up on the roof and Under the Boardwalk, I think of Brighton Beach, where my mother grew up and I spent many childhood hours playing on and under resepctively. One of these is the view from my Mom’s window, the other is my grandmother on the roof of their apartment. My grandfather spent hours playing chess on the roof as well. There are just so many pictures of my family on the boardwalk and the roof, these places were really the center of life there for so many people. My parents even met for the first time on the beach right in front of Brighton Fourth Street, she was waiting on the sand for a date and my father came by started chatting her up before her date arrived. As my friend Neal mentioned, looking back over our family and parents history, it is amazing how many things had to fall into place just for us to come into existence. Thanks Dad! See more photos
…scanned from my archive. My Grandparents travel papers to France. Here is an excerpt from a recent article about them, long but pretty fascinating - "Gertrude with her social grace and skill and knowing full well that they were in mortal danger as political targets in 1939 during WW2 both from Nazis and Russians, steered them on foot, at night mostly, over the mountains from Switzerland to France.
The Zetkins had old friends in Paris who hid them in the French countryside where Kostja worked as a masseur and labourer. After Hitler occupied France they were they were eventually caught and imprisoned for four months by the Vichy Authorities. Luck was on their side: they were not recognized by the German authorities which would have meant an immediate death sentence by firing squad.
It was Gertrude who spotted and secretly negotiated with a sympathetic Prison Commandant. When she nervously felt him out on his political leanings and she confessed to him their real identities, he paused and quietly said, “We cannot have the son of Clara Zetkin in a prison cell”.
Even at the height of the War in Nazi Occupied France, the names of Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg could be passports to freedom. Such was the regard of ordinary people for these iconic heroes who had championed social justice in Europe for the previous half- century. People willingly risked everything on more than one occasion to save Gertrude and Kostya.
Gertrude’s astute judgment in assessing social realities allowed them to be quietly released and smuggled to safety in Spain and onward to Gertrude’s son, Lucas Bennett in New York in 1945."
…scanned from my archive. The grandfather I grew up with was a man name Kostja Zetkin, he and my Grandmother married a few years after my father was born. Kostja had an interesting background, his mother was Clara Zetkin ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clara_Zetkin ), one of the leaders of the Weimar Republic and a fierce women's rights advocate. She was also best buds with Lenin, and Kostja spent many of his early years running around the Kremlin, where his mother is now buried. Kostja's earlier lover was the well-known socialist leader Rosa Luxembourg (Clara’s protégé), their affair was featured in the 1986 movie of the same name. Unfortunately they killed off Kostja halfway through the movie which I thought was rather odd since I knew him well into his nineties. Because of their Socialist associations, my Grandparents had to leave Germany as the Nazis rose to power, leading to many years on the run in Europe.
…scanned from my archive. My Mother’s family settled into the multi ethnic enclave of Brighton Beach. Although mostly Jewish from Eastern Europe, neighbors included Greek, Italian and a host of other countries. My Grandfather Boris, set up a photo studio in the storefront of their building on Brighton 4th Street. It was actually right on the boardwalk and got a lot of foot traffic, especially on weekends, which meant as a kid you either hung around the studio or played on the beach across the way. Back then being a photographer entailed also being a chemist, mathematician, social director and artist for retouching. Unfortunately when he sold the business, all the plates, negatives, and cameras went with it. See more photos
…scanned from my archive. My father didn’t have the happiest of childhoods, he was being raised by a single mother in the 1920’s in Germany, which couldn’t have been easy for either of them. I was told stories of him being tied up to a tree during the day so his mother could work, although I find this a bit dramatic, but who knows. The rise of Nazism would soon encroach on his life in a major way, but there were a few happy Summers that he spent with his mother and aunt in a beach town on the North Sea called St. Peter-Ording. These are some of the only childhood photos I have of him, he looks happy. I was named for the town. See more photos
…scanned from my archive. My paternal Grandmother Gertrude wanted to have a child with artistic genes, so she went to a famous artist colony in Worpesvede, Germany, where she found a handsome young artist named Tetjus Tügel (that's him on the left with well known artist Heinrich Vogeler on right in 1920). She proceeded to get knocked up and promptly left after my father’s birth. Quite the free spirit!
…scanned from my archive. My maternal Grandfather Boris escaped his prison camp in Siberia and went to Japan where he met up with his first cousin Fanny. They got married, and yes, this explains a lot, and no, further comments are not necessary. Moved from Japan to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Quit a trip! I think this was taken in my Grandfather’s photo studio on the Brighton Beach boardwalk and the print was displayed in the shop window. One day a thief smashed the glass, the only thing stolen - my grandmother's print!
…scanned from my archive. Gertrude Zetkin, my Grandmother on my Father’s side. This is her as a doctor in WWI in the German Army. It was not common for women to serve as doctors back then, but during wartime…
Boris Lenoff, my Grandfather on my Mom’s side. Being a Jew in the Russian army didn’t go over too well. At one point, he was ordered by a superior officer to clean the latrines. He thought as an officer he was not required to do this, and so refused. As a result he was confined to quarters to await trial for refusing a direct order. Knowing what was in store for him he got a pass, travelled in Russia, through Siberia, into Japan. He lived there and studied photography before emigrating to the United States.