A shortened version of this post originally aired as a commentary on KOSU Radio, October 21, 2014.
In 1958, a computer pioneer and physicist named Nick DeWolf took a selfie while sitting in a Barber shop in Wakefield, Massachusetts. He was 30-years-old, and already way ahead of his time.
I discovered Nick in 2008 while looking for images of Generation X.
I wanted to feature pictures on my blog that captured our collective childhood and youth. I turned to the popular photo sharing site called FLICKR, and over and over again, pictures from Nick DeWolf’s photo archive appeared in my search results.
DeWolf, who died in 2006, was also an engineer and entrepreneur, and he loved to take pictures. The family generously began sharing from his massive body of work in 2005. DeWolf’s son-in-law Steve Lundeen serves as archivist. He’s painstakingly organized nearly 100,000 images into 1,500 albums. They’re archived by year beginning in 1952 and going through 2006.
The collection is a charming and exotic chronicle of years most treasured by three generations of Americans: The Silent Generation; Baby Boomers and Generation X.
There are pictures of girls from the 1950s wearing swimming caps. A hippie in a poncho in New York City in 1970. A boy in tube socks, skateboarding in Aspen in 1977.
There are pictures of people on subways and at parties with fancy punch bowls. Neon signs and people kissing and smoking. Parades and ski bunnies. Men in thin lapel suits and JFK sunglasses. Buildings and airports. Birds, weddings, churches, families, lovers.
A Sputnik party and war protests. Hare Chrishna in the snow. A gay liberation party in 1970. Lunch counters in Harvard Square.
There are lots of pictures of DeWolf’s children — first wave Gen-Xers. There’s Christmas in the family home in Beacon Hill, 1967. In 1968, they play Monopoly on the kitchen floor. In 1969, they play pond hockey on a frozen lagoon in a Boston garden.
There’s one picture I dearly love from 1971. It’s of a woman in plastic rollers peering out the window of an old brick building during the Bunker Hill Day parade. I’m so glad that when everyone was photographing the bands going by, Nick DeWolf turned his camera up and away to capture the human condition.
One of my favorite albums is from 1974 — the wedding an interracial couple, Uriah and Sheila Sheets. It’s is a glorious collection of afros, full-brimmed hats and halter dresses. Girls in polyester and lace. Groomsmen in ruffled shirts. The Bridesmaids wore a rainbow of sherbet dresses with hot pink, lime green and yellow veils.
What’s not to love about a candy-colored veil? Or a long dress with embroidered daisy trim? It’s all so, Baby Boomer prom.
Maggie DeWolf, Nick’s widow, gave me permission to publish some of her late husband’s pictures on my blog. Scarcely few have been published outside of Flickr. Although some will be featured in a book called Dirty Old Boston on November 3, a book dedicated to his photographic genius is in order.
I’m grateful for DeWolf’s obsessive documentation of life, big and small, one day, one decade after another. It helps me recall my generation in perfect detail. Streaming through his photographs are all the little things I’ve forgotten. The twisted cords of rotary phones, wood-paneled station wagons, the polyester short set I wore in 1976.
There is so much more to say about Mr. DeWolf. In 1961, he created Teradyne, a company that develops automatic test equipment, in a space above Joe and Nemo’s Hot Dog Stand in downtown Boston. Years, later, he created Aspen’s famed dancing water fountain. Those who knew him best called him a provacateur extraordinaire who could not be described, only experienced. The same can be said of his photography.
In an interview shortly before his death, he said this: “I was supposed to marry a debutante and be a banker (snore). What a dreadful life that would have been. So here I am in my twilight years…I’ve had a wonderful life…I’ve done what I wanted to do without having to be greedy about it.”
Bonus: Maggie DeWolf
I love Nick DeWolf’s pictures of his wife Maggie and her signature bangs. The pictures progress from her wedding to childbirth to motherhood to middle-age. They span three generations and capture her from pony tails to gray hair. What a fabulous life they lived!
Many thanks to Steve Lundeen for securing Maggie’s permission to use the photos in this post. “From my perspective, having worked closely with the images now for a number of years, I’d say that Nick had an intense curiosity and indefatigable fascination with the people he encountered, the places he traveled, the things he saw,” Lundeen said. “A passionate man with a camera, documenting his journey through life, sharing a simple message… ‘Hey, this is a pretty great place!'”