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Rethinking the Front Porch Portrait: a Message from the Past

Solomon D. Butcher

©️ History Nebraska

The front porch portrait and its appeal somewhat elude me.

Maybe I’m not sentimental enough; it’s definitely the contrarian in me. These family pictures do fascinate me, though. I find myself wondering about their historical significance. If I’m being honest, when I look at them, I’m primarily reminded of the work of Solomon D. Butcher: families assembled in front of their homes with their prized possessions, posing for a photo meant to document a particular or unique time.

Front Porch Portraits Are Worth a Thousand Words

When statewide lockdowns began to happen, a UVA history professor named Tico Braun urged his students (and all Americans) to keep a journal of their experiences during the pandemic. By documenting our day-to-day lives in a disrupted, nearly unprecedented era, we could provide primary source materials to future generations.

I remember seeing a similar suggestion back in March and thinking, “Hey, I’ve got three kids and work to do, why don’t you ‘write it down,’ Tolstoy?”

Which is why I am sympathetic to the front porch portrait. Absent the wherewithal to write down our daily experience, photo documentation can be a powerful substitute. For example, we are able to surmise much about the early homesteader experience in Nebraska from Butcher’s family pictures. We know how people dressed, what a sod house looked like, and what they were proud of. These family pictures tell us what possessions, pets, and equipment these families valued enough to include in what might be the only family photo they might ever have.

David Hilton, the First Insta-Husband

Take, for example, the Hilton family. David Hilton’s wife and daughter were too proud to let Butcher photograph them in front of their humble sod dwelling. However, they were quite pleased to let friends and family in other parts of the country know that they had recently purchased a new pump organ. Therefore, Solomon Butcher and David Hilton had to lug the massive musical instrument from inside the dirt house for the picture, then take it back inside. 

The desire of this mother and daughter to project a certain image is one that modern sensibilities will find understandable. Certainly, I’ll admit that a quick review of my phone’s camera roll will reveal multiple versions of the same selfie.

But I’m not convinced a time-traveling homesteader would fully understand the family pictures we are taking today in the era of COVID. They’d understand the urge to document our lives; they’d certainly understand the rampant disease. As the Hilton family example proves, they’d even understand the vanity of it. But I can’t help feeling that some intangible quality of the front porch portrait would likely be utterly foreign to them.

Why I’m a Front Porch Portrait Grinch

I’ll admit that “grinch” is sort of my default mode. I’m not a joiner by nature. And yeah, I’m jealous of all the front porch portrait fun. The Phillips are not joining this family picture trend because it’s just not authentic to who I am or who my family is. Daria, for example, wouldn’t do a front porch portrait; it would seem forced.

Certainly, I understand the willingness to make light of a bad situation. I do standup, for crying out loud.

But the jokey tableaux of moms holding a glass of wine next to smirking dads with rolls of toilet paper, posed amidst their children’s performative rambunctiousness, mostly make me wonder how future generations will view these portraits.

Photography was rare in the days of Solomon D. Butcher and even rarer among early Nebraska homesteaders. In an era where we can easily, instantly document what we ate today or what our new haircuts look like (remember haircuts?), the front porch portrait may take on a different significance to future generations than the Butcher photos do to ours.

“These families,” they’ll say, “Who could readily project a curated image of themselves and their families virtually at will – they chose to take these professional family pictures in front of their homes during a pandemic. Why?”

To each their own. And even if my family will not be participating in this trend, it should not stop a family who does wish to document this time from their front porch. But maybe we could think about how these photos will be viewed in the future before snapping us in our PJs and our toilet paper stash?

What do you think about front porch portraits? Agree or disagree? Share with us in the comments?

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One Response to Rethinking the Front Porch Portrait: a Message from the Past

  1. Avatar
    Kirsten July 1, 2020 at 8:11 am #

    Oh goodness what a thought provoking article! I think you hit the nail on the head about these photos being studied in the future. I also wish I had the drive to journal.

    We did participate in the front porch photos and mine are drenched in symbolism. My girls are I are wearing no shoes to represent our inability to go anywhere. My husband’s boots are empty in the photo to remind us dad was gone when all this started. We’re in our casual clothes. (Except for the 3 year old. She’s in princess shoes and a princess dress. I didn’t feel like fighting that.)

    I have another favorite photograph of my daughter talking to her best friend who lives next door, the two of them 6 feet away. We’ve taken photos in our masks. Some days I feel like I’m frantically trying to document this time that we’re living in. I wish I was a better photographer.

    Yes some photos being taken are very silly and will probably end up in their own category when our time is studied. I also get not being a joiner. I think if it wasn’t my thing I wouldn’t either. I’m eager to see what is said about these photos 50 years from now.

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