A Photographic History

As my father before me, I have two sets of photographic records. His were slides and prints; mine are prints and JPEGs. My father’s records exhibited a clear discontinuity: it was almost all slides all the time until–Poof!–there weren’t any slides ever again. There was little overlap: Once he switched to prints he was all-in. My transition has been more gradual: My JPEGs start in 2003 and have gradually come to dominate, but even now, 20 years later, I still get handed the occasional print.

More to the point, I still have a shelf full of albums full of prints. Photos of me growing up, photos of my children and nieces and nephews growing up, photos of their children growing up. Candid shots and school shots and shots from what we would now call pop-up portrait studios in shopping malls. Travel shots. Photos taken by me, by my mother, by my siblings, by friends, by neighbours, by that popping-up professional. They were mostly shots of record: Where did we live in 1958? Who joined us for Christmas dinner in 1963? What was the view from the, um, viewpoint in Wyoming? What did we kids look like heading out to the annual anniversary dinner, all lined up squinting into the sun?  Arty photography was not a thing in my childhood or young-married home.

As part of the ongoing effort to reduce the stuff in my current home, I started going through my albums, planning to scan the photos into JPEG format: easier to store, to label, to share, and to save for posterity. All the photos? Well, sure. Why not? There weren’t that many. After all, back in the day making prints cost a bundle–Until, what, the 1980s? Even later?–so we picked our spots, choking the flow at source. Here’s Baby just home from the hospital, then at 6 weeks, then at 12 weeks, and then look! Crawling. Or heading off to school. Just like that, according to the photographic record. Or that’s how it seemed.

As with many things in life, when I looked at it closely, it was not exactly how it seemed. Not precisely how I remembered it.

The constraints on casual photography back in the day would suggest that all or most of these prints should be keepers, and yet an amazing number have no enduring value. Poor lighting and poor composition (Is that a kid across the room behind that box?) conspired to make unremarkable photos, but what surprised me was the repetition, even in the pre-digital age. Can’t take good photos of a squirmy kidlet? Take several! All bad!

As for the candid shots of family gatherings–those I attended and those I did not–these were fun to flip through at the time, but are not so interesting now. It turns out that good candid photography is an actual skill.

The good news? The scanning target is no longer “all” photos; indeed, it’s blown through “most,” past “some,” and is now closing in on “a representative few.”

The good-er news? Posterity will thank me. Well, no they won’t, but they should if they could. Sometimes–Always?–less is more.


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20 Responses to A Photographic History

  1. Oh, my, yes! Those photo ops, the first of which I remember at about age 2, certainly carved into my brain the importance of family and friends and travel and occasions, whether the religious holidays or birthdays or some other extraordinary event. Finding dozens more photos in my late sister’s collection was a welcome trip through time and affections. But who else will know or care?

    I have written short stories that include some of those people, The photos could provide an antiphonal point of view on their characters. Do the photos hold more stories I should tell? I have significant “stuff” issues, too. And family members are going through tectonic shifts of which I may or may not catch the drift. Am I the only one who regards this cache as a treasure?

    Can I formulate a platform that will satisfy some future archivist with that concept of the representative few? That may be the lifeline that will get me through an arduous task.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – 🙂 I treasure the few photos of my own childhood – maybe in part because there are so few? – and I’ve scanned way more photos of the cute-baby stage of my own descendants and of those joined by broader ties/understandings of family than a strict gene-pool analysis would justify. And yet… there are still SO MANY that are almost indistinguishable and, well, not very good. That’s hardly a surprise – it’s in taking and reviewing photos that we get better, and pre-digital there wasn’t an economical way for the family photographer to do that. I try not to be too rigourous – the slides of the interior of her house that my grandmother sent her sister in Iowa and that wended their way back to my mother are now my treasure because that living room now exists only in memory and these slides. I do try to remember that my grandchildren will value things I find it hard to imagine, much less to predict. Happy sorting!

  2. Your Father’s photographic legacy sounds the same as mine, except prints gave way to slides. (Ekatchrome slides vs Kodachrome slides have a relatively short lifespan.)
    I became the custodian of the 10 or so family print albums, and a few hundred slides, when Mum passed. The collection sounds much the same as yours.

    I too scanned “a representative few” and then tried to find homes for the original prints and/or scans. Surprisingly (?) few family members wanted either the prints or scanned jpgs.

    I then found homes for Dad’s RCMP associated prints with various museums and archives, and some of his autobiographical writings.

    I built a Family Tree website that featured the usual tree, plus scanned prints and digitized writings. This was the third reiteration of the family tree (an extensive AV Presentation, hardcover book were the other two). None of the three have had much attention paid to them.

    Except for
    a) the hardcover Family Tree book (which each family from the tree has a copy),
    b) hardcover photobooks of (too many) selected images, that I have taken, for my two kids, (I am working on a 300-400 image “All Star” book for them), and
    c) a few photos that appeared with an article I wrote for the Ottawa South Community Newspaper re the family’s living in (old) Ottawa South from 1947-1963.

    all will disappear into oblivion (along with my 300,000 digital images,25,000 of my own slides and a few hundred of my prints.) when I get hit by the preverbal bus.

    I have found, with my family et al, while spending a lot of time on our photos, there is limited outside enjoyment of some/many, but not much for past generational images.

    But don’t let that stop anyone from enjoying their own photographic passion/hobby/pastime!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – Oh, my. Now I can see the comparative size of my challenge – a candle to your sun. 🙂 On the other hand, no one else has to want these photos I have. That will certainly be true for my late-stage arty stuff – and that’s OK. It’s like laughing at your own jokes. At least I amuse myself. As for the family shots, I hope to put things in some sort of low-maintenance mode such that someone younger can be strong-armed into passing them along for when the future generates someone who *will* find it all a treasure. Happy greatest-hitting!

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    Scanning photos — ah, yes, such a long and slow and detailed process when I have to put all those slides into their slots in the flatbed scanner… I saw an item in the Hammacher-Schliermeier (or something) catalog which can do the scanning of stacks and stacks of slides faster than a Xerox can waste paper, but my daughter threw the catalog out before I got around to ordering it. She said it didn’t work by actually scanning the photo but by taking a picture of it, directly into JPEG format. Do you know anything about that? My drug store/photo retailer hadn’t heard of it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – My slide-scanning experience is at least a tech generation out of date – maybe two. I used a tiny box into which I could feed a slide, one at a time. It worked well enough for my purpose, which was to capture record shots of family and a “memory trigger” shot of my parents’ travels. That is, image quality wasn’t upper-most in my mind. I don’t know how it scanned the slide and made a JPEG. The Hammacher Schlemmer version has several improvements, including a tray to feed slides and a decent-size screen to view them, but I don’t know about the quality of its output. There is a point here at which the perfect becomes the enemy of the good (enough). Good luck!

  4. Judith Umbach says:

    My saddest experience in scanning old photos and slides is how they have deteriorated terribly. My simultaneous happiest experiences are seeing and remembering those long ago times, albeit through a faded glass.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – 🙂 Mom did most of her arty photography in film – and, of course, the negatives are long gone. As the colour prints fade, we have no way to replace/restore them – although I expect someone’s working on an AI app for that! Like you, I have enjoyed my amble along memory lane. Think of the people not very long removed from us, who had no access to that.

  5. Tom Watson says:

    Old photos never die, the memories included in them change.

  6. barbara carlson says:

    My mother was an organized person. She made several photo albums for my sister and I with dates and comments about who was whom… when and where. Ditto a scrapbook with all my report cards, school class photos. No shoe boxes for her!

    I spent the house-bound Covid years archiving John and my life’s artwork into a 3.5-meter row of binders/our books/catalogues/associated ephemera/etc.

    I continued with two volumes I called Pages from My Earlier Life. I scanned old photos or scrapbook items (mom’s and mine) and wrote about them, meandering along memory lanes and all that…

    Only problem… with all my granular orderliness, unlike my mother, I rarely put a date on the photos I took. I know, I know, you’ve met me!! Cross-referencing their arcane numbering system ensued. Good times!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – That sounds like a lovely project – well, except for the cross-referencing part. I think record-keeping is like flossing: Everyone knows they should do it…

  7. John L Whitman says:

    Isabel – everybody’s story with respect to pictures and other images collected over a lifetime are eerily the same. Maybe it is an age thing. I even had the negatives to go with the prints. However, rather than scan the faded and sepia colored prints, I bought a small device to scan the negatives and convert the scanned image directly as a jpeg. Should you ever want to borrow that device, it is in my storage locker somewhere, I think.
    Regarding multiple copies even in the days of print film. A longtime ago girlfriend who was a semi-professional photographer told me that if she got one good photo out of a roll of 24 exposures, it was a good shoot. Of course, she developed her own film.
    Maybe that’s why I still follow the “Take lots of pictures and hope for the best” school of photography.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I’m beginning to think that this is something that should be taught in high school – what to capture/save, and what can be junked. Negatives are a great thing to have, both for reproducing faded prints and for being the source of a scan. As for the 1:24 ratio, that sounds about right – although her standards may have been higher than mine are. (Back in the day, what mattered with kid photos was getting something to capture the age/stage, especially for grandparents who didn’t live in the same city.) Today, I enjoy the freedom to take as many photos as I want; I’m less happy about having to go through a zillion shots to find the good ones. Too many decisions!

    • barbara carlson says:

      French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was also an early adopter of 35mm film photography. He said, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

      I quit at 10,000 so I’ll never know. Ha!

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Barbara – 10,000 eh? I must be approaching that count on big-white-bird photos. 🙂 I do actually notice a difference when I look at my photos from 10 years ago – we *can* learn/improve, hurray!

  8. Alison says:

    Ahhh. The dreaded photos! Honestly, it’s a project that keeps me awake at night (well, I’m probably already awake, but can certainly fill my mind) I really haven’t even started – despite having a Pandemic to allow me lots of time at home. I did pull photos out of the “magnetic plastic sheet” albums – although now they are in a pile. My digital photos aren’t much better – and my father took Super8 movies- which we transferred to DVD’s! And then we rented a video camera for a few family events? Why?? It’s on my “to do” list every New Year – maybe this will be the year?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – You go, girl! Or not. This is a task whose half-life is short: I’m pretty sure that the folks next in our respective chains will have no trouble chucking our photos if we don’t get to it. Part of that is the decreasing ratio of connection: our one-&-only parents are just one of their sets of grandparents, and so on. For another thing, I remember bringing up paper bags of mystery photos from Mom & Dad’s basement — even they didn’t know who was in most of the shots, and no longer remembered where (or who) they’d come from.I get a kick out of going through the old shots (especially the baby ones) but absent that, meh.

      • Alison says:

        At one point, I inherited my Uncle’s old photos. It was after my dad had died, and my Uncle’ family was not interested, so l was contacted, and told there was a box of photos. It turned out it was a CHEST of photos – most of which I had no idea of anyone in them, some of them VERY old, and unfortunately, not really of value to me. Yet, I STILL had trouble getting rid of them ??

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Alison – I get it, I do. At least for me, there’s always the hope that somehow these people will be identified – and that someone else will be glad they were! Maybe there’s a business in storing old photos for people with a searchable database (as to where/who they came from), so that an interested someone in the extended family could at least find them. Mom used to say that it only took 1 person per generation to retain the family history, but if the interest skipped a generation, everything would be gone.

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