Grandpa’s Camera: A Life in Pictures


Stubble: Who was your grandfather?
Matt: Paul Scharfencamp was my grandpa on my mom’s side of the family. He was a Staff Sergeant in WWII, a civilian pilot, a truck driver, an avid hunter, husband to my Grandma Verna for 42 years, a father of eight children, and a man who enjoyed photography. He passed away in 1989 at the age of 68. I was seven years old.

Stubble: What do you remember about Grandpa Paul?
Matt: Most of my memories of him weren’t actually of him, but of his possessions. Their small house was full of different animal mounts like deer, a mountain goat, foxes, and birds. He loved the color red and you would see it every where. Their shingles, the shutters, the lawn chairs, the swing set, the cement steps leading up to the house were all red. He had all his tools hung up on the wall in his garage. The hammers, shovels, wrenches – all red. On the side of the garage there was a row of deer mounts and elk antlers. All the plaques that there were mounted out were, you guessed it, painted red. On each of the plaques, he had painted in large white letters the type of animal, and where and when he had shot it. He loved documenting things.

I only have a few memories of him when he was alive. We all lived in the same town, but I remember Christmas the most. We all would go over to their house on Christmas Eve and exchange gifts. All the stockings for the grandkids were hung of the antlers of the various mounts in the living room. I’m not sure why or when, but he had a tracheostomy, which made it difficult for him to speak. I specifically remember Christmas of 1988. He had asked me to go out to his truck to get his tin of Copenhagen. I was probably having fun playing with my cousins at the time and pretended that I couldn’t understand him. When he died a month later, I felt guilty that was my last memorable interaction with him.


Stubble: How did you come across his photos?
Matt: In early March of 2013, we were celebrating Grandma Verna’s 90th birthday in the basement of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in my hometown of Franklin, Minnesota. We need a big place to celebrate because the family is so large. My mom and aunt love throwing parties and plan the all the details. They had the suit she wore to their wedding (not a wedding dress, a suit) on display along with a bunch of momentos and several photo albums. Many of the photographs where square shaped and faded. I made a joke to my brother Mitch that Grandpa Paul would have loved Instagram. I snapped a picture of one of his photos and posted it on my Instagram account. This is when the idea was planted in my head, but I never really thought again until over a year later.

Stubble: What made you revisit the idea and start @GrandpasCamera?
Matt: In late May of this year, my brother Mitch and I were texting about a family tree site that I had setup when I was on a big genealogy kick in 2007. I had uploaded one image of most my relatives to the site so it would show their face on the family tree. Mitch mentioned that I should upload more photos and mentioned how it would be cool to have a digital version of all of Grandpa’s Paul WWII photos. That Instagram photo that I had taken a year ago popped back into my head and I figured that if I was going to take the time to scan them, I should do more with them than putting all of them on DVDs for my relatives that would likely collect dust like the albums had. I spent a few hours thinking up a good memorable username that was available on both Twitter and Instagram. @GrandaPaul was taken but inactive. Instagram has rules about inactive accounts but it’s nearly impossible to as someone there to deactivate them. While @PaulScharfencamp and @GrandpaScharfencamp were available, those weren’t the easiest to remember. Much to my surprise, @GrandpasCamera was available on both services.


Stubble: What is the process of digitizing the photos and organizing them into posts?
Matt: I’m actually still in the process of digitizing all the photos. I take the photos out of the album and, depending on the size or shape, I scan between four and six at a time. It’s a very time consuming process. I bought my scanner back in 2001 and it’s not very fast. If I had to guess, I would say that it takes around 10 hours to scan an album. I looked into services where I could pay to have them all scanned in, but this allows me to see every photo and document anything that was written on it. Knowing every photo is helpful when picking out the pictures.

When I post a picture, I bring it into Photoshop, rotate it so it’s level, and crop it so it’s a square. Sometimes I adjust the contrast or sharpen the image. Other than those adjustments, all images are #nofilter. There is no need to fake it when it’s the real thing. Once I have the image ready, I send it to myself via iMessage and post it on Instagram and Twitter.

I’ve gotten through the first two albums. I know there are the first two because he wrote on the cover of the album #1 and #2 in large black letters. I would guess that I’ve scanned in approximately 800 photos so far, and I still have two albums and large tote left. The tote is mostly WWII photos and I’ve been told that there are pictures in there from a camera he found during the war. He had the film developed and there were photos of Hitler.

I mentioned earlier that he loved documenting things, and on many of the photos, he had written the year and location, or a short comment describing the front, yes the front, of the photo. Part of me cringes that the photos are now damaged but other part of me loves that it shows he personality. It also makes the Instagram posts more interesting by being able to tell a story. Some of his old photos from WWII have writing on the back of them, but many are glued down to sheets of paper or in a scrapbook. I have carefully peeled a few off but I’m scared I will damage them. I’ve been able to hold a few up to a bright light and decipher what it says.

Stubble: Have you learned anything about your grandpa or do you see his life in any new light since taking on this project?
Matt: Working on this project really has really made me look at life different. I have realized that my grandparents have had all these experiences and moments in their lives that I never thought about. Now I spend part of every day thinking about my grandpa and his life. A few nights ago, I was sorting through that large tote of photos and I found the program from his funeral. I’ve seen it several times over the years, but as I was reading it, I started to feel a lump in my throat and my eyes started to tear up.

Going through these albums, I see my grandpa go from being a kid in the 1920’s, to a 20-something solider in mid-1940’s, to a father with a bunch of kids in the 1950’s through 1970’s, and then being the person I recognize from the 1980’s. This made me realize that life really is short.

Stubble: How has being a new dad yourself changed the way you approach the project?
Matt: I see pictures of my grandpa and grandma with their kids and now I can picture myself in their shoes. Before my son was born, I would have looked at a photo like that and thought “That is a younger Grandpa and Grandma and my mom as a kid. Neat.” Now that I have my own family, I look at the same photo and there is an emotional connection there that I can relate to. I see photos of them at an age younger than I am now, and with several kids and I don’t know how they did it.

Stubble: What do you think your grandfather would say about what you’re doing if he were alive today?
Matt: My mom said he was always looking at his photo albums and that he’d love this project. I recently visited Grandma Verna (she never remarried, is now 91 years old and still lives on her own in an apartment) and I showed her some of the images on my iPad. She didn’t have much to say, but she did spend a lot of time just looking through the photos. That meant a lot to me.

Stubble: Getting a glimpse inside of your grandpa’s life has fascinating, even for someone who never knew him as you did. What do the pictures have to offer for others? Have you had much feedback?
Matt: I’ve received many great comments on the project but this one from @jgayusky struck a chord. “I very much appreciate seeing your grandpas photos. My dad was a WWII vet, in the Navy in the Pacific. He would be close to 92 now. It’s a touching tribute; in some ways it helps me honor my dad’s service.”

Matt Tonak is a Marketing Strategist at The Nerdery. Follow his project, Grandpa’s Camera, on Instagram at @GrandpasCamera.


2 thoughts on “Grandpa’s Camera: A Life in Pictures

  1. Matt, thank you so much for sharing your Grandpa’s marvelous photos with us. I would so love to have pictures like yours from my Dad. Your pictures help me appreciate him and that whole generation. Thanks also to your family for allowing you this pursuit!

  2. Really nice Tom! I didn’t know it was Matt’s page! I remember meeting him at The Nerdery.

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

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