I am very lucky to have a collection of photos from my family that span all the way back into the 1800s. Around the 1930s the Brownie Camera was all the rage. My grandparents were crazy about taking photos. That’s my grandmother “Beauty” in the photos below … and my grandfather. Great clothes, right?
My grandmother was really diligent about keeping the photos and my mother was diligent after my grandmother passed away. But sometimes photos get separated from their original owners — sometimes by natural disaster, sometimes by death, sometimes because they were borrowed. In college I scoured estate sales for old photos as inspiration for painting. I came across boxes and boxes of family photos that had been separated from their original owners. I looked through each box, photo by photo, thinking that the families could have been my own. I saw myself in girls on the beach, I saw my parents in wedding photos, and I saw my future as a mother in baby carriages and birthday cakes.
Sometimes, orphaned photos get lucky … like when my aunt found this photo of my mother being auctioned on eBay:
The only reason we found it is because my mother’s name had been written on the back of the photo by an editor. Yes it’s kind of strange to find your mother’s photo being sold on an auction site but I imagine they could just as easily have thrown it away.
And then there’s a man in California known as the Photo Man. He buys and sells millions of personal photos of complete strangers. It’s a great story!
I guess what I’m trying to say is that a printed photo is always more likely to withstand the test of time. The printed photo is something that can easily be passed along from generation to generation. The digital form of a photo is invisible unless you have a device to store and view it with — and as someone who treasures the story of the past … that scares me.
When my father passed away, I found thousands of photos on his computer that had never been printed. Family photos, trip photos, old negatives that had been scanned. If I hadn’t been diligent in looking for them, they would have been lost forever. His computer was ancient (in technology years) and we sent to where old computers go to die, but not before I saved the photos.
How many times have you been asked recently to view someone’s family photos on a phone or a computer? It just isn’t the same as seeing the photo in physical form … in an album, in a picture frame or in a printed book.
I get behind on printing photos and I start to have anxiety about it. I think part of the problem is with the digital photo phenomenon we take gazillions of photos where before we were limited to only 24 exposures. Remember how cool it was to get the photos back from the processing center? And then 1-hour photo came along and that was a huge innovation. Only 1 hour and you can see how your photos turned out! Wow.
And now printing at home is ever faster — especially when you can print images directly from your phone!
I grew up in a household where our lives revolved around photography. My father started the company that put portrait studios in Wal-Mart way back in the 1980s. Chances are if you walked into a Wal-Mart during the 1980s you passed a huge poster of either my or my brother or my sister. My dad had worked for his company’s competitor in the 1970′s and all of our family portraits were taken in the studio there. But photo processing is never an exact science … and the paper that the company used was faulty. For many years photos were taken on a paper called Type 4. They looked beautiful when the families got them … but fast forward 6 years and every bit of blue dye disappeared. Millions of photos turned red … including ours. All of my baby photos and family photos for a span of 5 years are a dull shade of red:
But at least I still have the printed photos. I’ve even scanned many of them and reprinted them in black and white. I know people that have lost full hard drives of family photos that were never printed or backed up. I know people who have backed up onto only a CD and lost the CD. Those stories are heartbreaking. Years worth of photos go *poof*.
And sometimes I wonder:
What if all of my grandparents photos had been digital…and no one had ever printed them?
What if the newspaper that was selling my mother’s photo had only saved a digital version?
Or what if my entire childhood had been captured on Instagram and the account was deleted?
My guess is that most of them wouldn’t be around today.
I’m constantly reminding myself :
1. 24 exposures worth of an event is plenty. Keep only the digital photos worth keeping.
2. Print family photos often — and print photos from your phone as soon as you take them with digital printing.
3. Back up photos again and again and again. And in more than one place.
And why all the effort? Because if my daughter has as much of an interest in her history as I have in mine I think it will all have been worth it.
I rounded up a few tips and articles on preserving your family memories that might be of interest. Feel free to browse the gallery below: