50 Years ago

Fifty years ago this month, my father boarded the SS Constitution at Pier 84 on Manhattan. At 23, he'd just driven across the country from San Francisco to Washington DC and then up to New York. He was on his way home. Some two years earlier, he had left Denmark for America to work on farms in Montana and California. 

Along the way, he took more than 1000 photographs. And he seemed to carry his camera everywhere. The pictures show him working the fields, drinking with friends, and cooking turkey in the oven.  There are shots out of airplane windows, of skylines and street life and tomato pickers. He would have been a great instagrammer.

My family recently had the photos scanned and it’s been a treat to rediscover them.  I grew up with those photos along with my dad’s scrapbooks with maps of cities and states. About once a year, usually around the holidays, he would get out the slide projector and show his pictures and tell his stories. He was the best storyteller I knew. And as a kid, no-one seemed to know the world better than him. 

The pictures shaped me. There were landscapes and cities on a scale I would never see in Denmark. And my father’s stories suggested that travel and discovery was a normal part of adult life. I understand now that those experiences were based on choices. My mom made similar choices in her early 20 and spent time as a waitress in Germany, a nanny in England, and later as an exchange student in Spain. The experiences of my parents had a profound impact on me, and I couldn’t wait to go out and see (and photograph) the world on my own.

My father was born on a farm in southern Denmark in 1940. His name was Hans Oluf Knudsen. As the middle son, the family farm passed on to his older brother. He came from a family of farmers going back generations and never seriously questioned a different career. But not having the responsibility of taking care of the family farm suited him just fine, and he was off to the States soon after he completed his military service and vocational training

The winter my dad returned to Denmark, he reunited with my mom at a New Year’s Eve dance. He'd left her behind a few years earlier and would soon leave again for another year (to be a bus driver on the American military base in Greenland). But this time my parents kept in touch. At 25, he was back in Denmark for good. Together, my parents bought a farm close to where they’d both grown up and raised three children. And they stayed put. Once their children moved away from home and began their own lives, my parents took pride in seeing them move around the world. We didn’t travel much growing up but once my brothers and I gave my parents places to visit, they eagerly followed. 

My dad’s photographs is a window into his personality. There are shots of children playing in the street, friends staring dreamingly into dramatic scenery, laughing co-workers on large farming equipment, and open roads. Going over each shot, I’ve paused to think of the moment before my dad pressed the shutter--what prompted him. The shots seem so very him, but I find it difficult to describe exactly what it is about the pictures that reveal his personality. A friend once wrote about how describing his dad made him feel like a fish who can’t describe the sea. I feel the same. Both my parents were so central to my upbringing that I too struggle to describe who they are.  I can still see and feel who my father was, and some details stand out: his kindness and compassion, his teasing and his laugh. Yet, I can’t seem to get close to an adequate description of what made my dad who he was. Of course, a complete portrayal is impossible.  But the pictures fill in some important gaps and help me remember him.

I wish my father could have been around to show my children his pictures and tell his stories. He passed away suddenly last year from a heart attack when he was out biking with friends. I didn’t have the feeling that there was anything more that he needed to tell me although there were plenty of life events I still wanted to share with him. The last time I saw him, I told him that I loved him and wished him goodnight and safe travels.

More pictures below the fold.


  1. This is wonderful - your eloquence, his story and the snaps he took of the world.

  2. This is wonderful - your eloquence with words, the story of your father and the snaps of the world he saw.

  3. These are incredible. Thanks for sharing. Great tribute.

  4. Jens, I've just come back to read your post and look at your dad's photos again. Both are wonderful. Thank you.