Work of Art: ‘Let the taller ones stand’

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By Art Trujillo

Whenever Dear Abby gets involved in a discussion about which people feel passionate, you know the matter is serious. Dear Abby (actually Dear Abby’s daughter) took over her mom’s advice column years ago and it remains an extremely popular feature.

But as for feeling passionate, let me explain:

A number of years ago, possibly during the tenure of the original Dear Abby, someone wrote to complain that she had “never been so insulted” in her life. Now does this mean someone questioned her gender? Does it mean someone in a restaurant offended someone else, or did some high school graduate fail to send a thank-you note to the senders of a crisp 20?

Well, dear reader, it was none of these. And the reason I’ve danced around the topic is not because I get paid by the word but because I really believe the offended reader’s question to Dear Abby shouldn’t have even registered on the interest meter.

Here goes anyway:

The complainer said her extended family had gone to a professional photographer’s studio for a family portrait and was offended when the photographer seated all the young and old men and asked the women to stand. Imagine the effrontery of such an action!

What’s wrong with this picture? Before I answer, let me explain that I dropped in to a reunion that did not include my graduating class. I missed it by a year, but because a close relative asked me to take photos, I went along but skipped the meal. I felt a wee bit embarrassed when the emcee stopped the action to announce, “The press is here.”

Actually, the press wasn’t there, but the assumption was that I’d come to photograph every single (and divorced and married) individual of the classes of 1954, ‘55 and ‘56.

As I performed the honors with each class, I asked the reunioneers to have the taller people seated and the shorter ones standing. “Don’t you mean you want the taller ones standing?” someone asked. I wasn’t drunk, and I had a method to my madness. It’s not that difficult to explain or to understand.

The tall-ones-seated formula usually works because it reduces the distance between the rows. Otherwise, the tall ones would tower over the seated shorties. It worked well, my way, except for a quite longitudinally challenged coed who insisted on sitting. And she was almost not noticed, as the men generally rose above her.

So Dear Abby printed a host of submissions from readers — a surprising number of whom agreed that gentlemen ought to let ladies be seated. As the newspaper discussion went into extra innings, the seat-uational photographic issue phased into one of discrimination, lack of manners, women’s rights, male chauvinism and even threats of divorce.

Now, follow me to the olden days when your great-grandparents posed for black-and-white portraits that adorn your living room walls. One can almost bet that the subjects look frightened. And why is that? Probably because some old-time photographers used a device that created a flash when the photo was taken. I saw it happen once in a “Shooting With the Pros” workshop in Albuquerque. It frightened several, who also complained of the smell of gun powder, fireworks-like.

The photos taken during the other turn of the century generally required the subjects to sit frozen.

At the time, film was “slow,” meaning that the camera needed lots of light to avoid an under-exposure. And did you notice that people in the olden days almost never smiled for the camera? In those days, any kind of movement caused a blur. Compare that kind of technology with today’s modern photography that is able to “freeze” the action to the point where a speeding, spinning fastball seems to be suspended.

Were you or your parents or grandparents ever upset over the seating-standing arrangements at the photo studio? So curious was I that I went through hundreds of scanned photos of people who were young in the early 1900s.

My wife’s side of the family is large, and the members seldom passed up an opportunity to get in front of a camera.

Invariably, the men are seated, the women standing, and all of them hold a rigid pose. The studio photographer no doubt chose that arrangement to reduce the gap between the shortest and the tallest.

Some letter-writers treated the issue as if each family member were expected to retain that pose overnight.

Looking back, I wonder if some of Dear Abby’s readers, who stoked the photographic fires, were really interested in seeing how long the discussion/debate would last.

Abby often writes that she suspects that a group of friends, possibly members of a college fraternity, composes an outlandish letter to her, waiting to see whether readers weigh in on the issue.

The question of how we should arrange people for group photographs merits much more discussion. I must, however, end the topic now, as the oldsters who are waiting for me to ignite the flash-bar are becoming impatient.

And we can’t blame them, as they’ve been trying to hold their poses — men seated, women standing — for three hours.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com or art@rezio.net.