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Remember When We had Photographs?

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On a recent trip I visited a funky vintage store to see if anything caught my eye.  While I was easily able to keep myself from buying any jewelry or taxidermy, I came across a number of displays of family photographs available for sale.

Family History for Sale
Family History for Sale. Photo by Leslie J0hnston

Not only were there bowls of loose photos, there was a dis-bound photo album from an African-American family that seemed to be from the 1920s and 1930s, where everyone and every place was identified.

This saddened me.  And led me to think about my own experiences in trying to make family photos more preservable.

I have recently undertaken an effort to deal with the archive of photos that I have in my possession.  Some are older family photos from the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I have my father’s baby book from the 1920s.  Some are from my parents, and include slides taken by my father in Asia in the 1940s-50s.  I have my photo albums from my teenage years when I had my first camera.  Most — except the slides — are  labeled with names and dates.

When I switched to digital, I put my images on flickr, and tagged them with some degree of regularity.  Dates from file headers, some places, some names.

Then there are my own photo albums from the 1980s through the 2000s. They are chronological, but not labeled.  I have discovered that I have no idea where some were taken, or who they depict.  Last year I digitized a number of photos and slides for a friend who had lost her photo collections. The digitization was easy.  The metadata was hard.  Keeping the metadata with the files was even harder.  I resorted to file naming conventions (event_details_year) where I could, and created a spreadsheet with as much metadata as I could supply, such as people or places, and more granular dates such as birthdays or holidays.

So, getting back to those photos in a bowl at a vintage store.  There are two topics to consider:

What will your friends and family do with photographs that have no accompanying labels, written on the back or in albums? Will they be of enough value to retain, or will they end up at a garage sale or antique store?

What will your friends and family do with digital image files with no metadata?

So the advice is:

Record what you can about photos or digital images as soon as you can.

Keep the metadata and descriptions with the files and photos.  Name the files with understandable names, and label the backs of photos with soft lead pencil (not ink).  If you have photo albums, write out captions.  If you upload to online services, caption and tag them. (For reference, see this blog post on saving digital photos.)

If I can’t remember who is in a photo that I took only a few years ago, it’s likely that no one else will, either.  If no one knows what the photos are, no one will value them enough to preserve them.

How would you save your photos and images for posterity?

Comments (6)

  1. There’s a wonderful online collaborative art project, The Imaginary Family Project, where each week an author makes up a story about the people in a “lost” vintage photograph from a garage sale. It adds a new dimension to the need for digital preservation of photographs.

  2. As an educator at a history museum, it pains me to see these photos ‘die’. But even within families it happens – my mother’s boyfriend of 20 years just died at 92 years old. He had no other family. When we went through his things we found tons of photos with first names, no locations, few dates. None of us knows who these people are. There were boxes of photos, and we could not keep them all. It was painful to let them go. We did keep things that we could trace to a particular location and I’ll be contacting the local historical society to see if they are interested in any of them. But I’m sure that when we pass, these photos of ‘Grandpa Bill” will not be meaningful to our children and will end up in a bowl.
    So even writing on them and capturing meta-data is not foolproof. If they are not part of a narrative or story that is meaningful to someone, then they will most likely be lost eventually. This is why I’m scanning and scrapbooking them, hoping that maybe telling Grandpa Bill’s story will make him alive enough to unborn generations for them to want to hold on to these treasures.

  3. I wanted to first thank you, Leslie, for bringing this poignant topic to light. My brother, Quentin Bomgardner, who is coordinating “The Imaginary Family Project” lentigogirl mentioned had many of the same thoughts. When he discussed them with me, I strongly concurred.

    The vintage photographs you spied, we believe, deserve a history…even if it’s a new one written by a professional or amateur author.

    I am, as I write this, taking a break from documenting a ten day working trip in China. The images are precious and meaningful, but I know that as each day goes by, some small description will become more cryptique…and less helpful.

    Thanks, Leslie, for your good words on photographs…and thanks, lentigogirl for the shout out.

  4. Thanks Leslie, I’ve been meaning to write a post somewhat along these lines, but perhaps a bit more satirical. We hear all these gloom and doom stories about how our memories in the form of digital photos will be lost, but how many have actually done what would be needed to keep our memories in the form of slides, negatives and prints? Most are unlabelled, undated, some in the wrong sleeves, some faded, some scratched, some chemically decaying. I’ve found all this with my own photos, which I started digitising a few months ago. The slides were a nightmare, all in the wrong sequence, Tasmania mixed in with New Zealand, etc. Negatives are better than prints, I’ve found, because the negative numbers give a clue to the sequence of events. It’s been wonderful, but I’m painfully piecing together my past life! I know things now I would never have known from the photos alone!

  5. I have had the sad task of handling the papers and effects of several family members who have died, including my late husband. It is very sad when you have to throw away photographs because you don’t know anything about them. And although I would keep the photographs that included the family member, without an accompanying date, place or story, these will eventually probably be discarded also.

    I think that the problem will be much worse with digital photos because people take and keep many more of them and save them in multiple places.

  6. Great post. I’m going through many of these issues as well..

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