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.