I was recently at St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Chicago for a concert. I noticed a photo, black and white, taken at a banquet at the Sheraton Towers on June 25, 1960, in honor of the visit of Catholicos Vazken I, of blessed memory. The photo was taken from a balcony and showed the head table and at least 30 tables of 10 people that could fit in the shot. Everyone was dressed up—to the nines as they used to say. My guess is there were 350-500 people in attendance.
The photo was impressive, not only because it captured a celebration of a Pontifical visit, or coincidently, that it was taken on the evening of my seventh birthday. It was something more—something nostalgic. There have been photos like this in every Armenian church, agoump or getron, in commemorative and souvenir booklets. These photos, always in black and white and from an aerial vantage point, keep us rooted to the past. They are always taken from an aerial vantage point, in the grand ballroom of a swanky downtown hotel. They capture the gatherings of Armenians in the U.S. honoring or commemorating something—a convention, the founding of a church, the burning of a mortgage, or perhaps the 25th anniversary of this or the 30th anniversary of that.
I am sure these photos are not unique to the Armenian community. Every ethnic group, church, civic or professional organization likely has similar photos.
From my perspective, I have seen more Armenian banquet photos than any others. These panoramic photos have impressed me for years, especially those from the 1930s and 1940s. These photos of hundreds of Armenians, dressed in their finest gathered in luxurious ballrooms, were taken just 15-30 years after the Genocide. It is hard to distinguish faces pictured beyond the front two rows of tables, and if the photo is not from Detroit, where I grew up, there is almost zero chance I will recognize anyone. Yet, I am mesmerized by these photos. I look at and study them much longer than I would a masterpiece in an art museum. It is a window to the first generation, the survivors of the Genocide. Who is the baker, the butcher, the storekeeper, the rug merchant? Who are the factory workers and common laborers? To me, they all seem to say, “Look at us. We not only survived but are thriving. We miss our homeland, but look at us.”
Why don’t we see more banquet photos these days? We certainly have photos of participants and delegates of various conventions, Armenian and Sunday School students, and gatherings on the steps of churches or other venues. We took photos like these then and certainly today. Yet, we almost never see these kinds of banquet photos anymore.
The answer is probably quite simple. These days we rarely use the grand city center hotels. Most of our banquets and dinners are held in suburban hotels and banquet halls. These venues were probably built after 1960. They all have something in common—none of them have balconies. It is almost impossible to get these kinds of photos without a very tall ladder or perhaps a drone. It seems these kinds of photos just faded away with the change in architecture and interior design of the newer, more “modern” venues.
There are a few modern versions of this genre of nostalgic photos. Maybe, given how many images are created these days, we should leave these panoramic banquet photos to the black and white era of that first generation.