Fathers and Photographs

My father died in 2004 (story at grandpa_a). One of the various collections I inherited* was his collection of photo albums… at least 200 of them. Although my dad had lots of cameras, he wasn’t the best of photographers. There were a fair amount of blurry pictures, which he would dutifully put in albums. He would also go on lots of accounting seminar trips with my mom, and take loads of pictures of scenery and random people (I have a picture from 1977 in front of me labeled “George. George’s Wife” — I have no idea who George is). There are also a fair number of pictures of clients and people who may have been dear to my parents, but whom have no meaning to me. So I’ve been going through these pictures and condensing the albums. I’ve been tossing pictures that have faded beyond visibility (old color film does this when stored in a garage). I’ve been tossing scenery without meaning. I’ve been tossing pictures of people I don’t know. So far, I’ve condensed 48 albums into 7½ albums, and I’m up to the beginning of 1978. I’m sure things will go even faster after I move out of the house in 1979.

In doing this process, I’ve learned quite a bit about photos and building photo albums. I’ve realized that the albums I’ve assessmbled of my family probably suffer the same problem as my dad’s did. Here’s what I’ve learned; perhaps you will find this advice useful:

  • Photo albums serve two audiences: those who were present at the event, and those far in the future. These are distinctly different. My father used the albums to remind him of where he had been and the good times. After he died, those memories went with him. The albums now serve to remind me of the people, and less the places. So I’m focusing on keeping the pictures with people I know. This leads to Lesson #1: Put people in your pictures. Pictures of just scenery age fast, and are meaningful only to those who were there with you. Having people in your pictures, especially family or extended family, make the pictures meaningful and root them.
  • Memories fade. There are loads of pictures in people I don’t recognize, and good number that I do. It really helps me when the pictures are labeled with date and time. Lesson #2: Label the people in your pictures. Now, these are old film prints, so we can label with a pen. For digital pictures, use the metadata.
  • I’m dealing with physical albums. There are loads of blurry pictures, pictures of random strangers, bad angles, bad composition. My dad just put them in the album. I’m sure it would have been even worse if he had gotten into the digital era. Lesson #3: Weed Before, and Weed Again. When you assemble your album, weed the pictures down to the meaningful. Yes, there will be more weeding to do as the years go on, but why keep the drek now?

After my dad died in 2004, I just stopped taking pictures. I don’t know whether it was my film camera dying. I don’t know if it was my workplace getting rid of the convenient developing service. I don’t know if it was never having a decent digital camera, or a printer for what few photos I took (or finding it much harder to keep digital photos organized than my printed film images). Just recently I’ve begun to think about taking pictures again, but I want to go out and get a decent digital camera setup. I’m sure the 15 or so film cameras I inherited from my dad** are less than useful these days, and my old Canon is dying.

A side note: This process of going through the pictures, especially the pictures of my youth and Jr. and Sr. high school days, has really been bringing back memories. I’ve been exploiting Facebook to reconnect with folks I haven’t spoken to in years (welcome to those reading this), and it is wonderful to reestablish long-lost friendships from that part of my life. I’ve gone to the paid level at Classmates for a year, and I’ll see if that permits me to find more folks to reconnect with. Finding old friends: That’s been an unanticipated side benefit of this process, and perhaps the real gift of this inheritance.

* I also have collections of First Day Covers and Autographs. I’d welcome help on figuring out what to do with those.
** Yes, I need help figuring out what to do with these as well.