sorting and saving photos

Recently I became the guardian of some slides from the past. A treasured few from my Poppa by way of my aunt, and quite a lot from my father-in-law by way of his children finally finding the box in his ex-wife’s basement.

I also was home visiting my parents recently, which meant that I had a chance to look through some of their many albums and photos, some which I remember from childhood, and others which have been inherited more recently.

Looking through these slides and photos (not to mention the thousands I have taken and decided to scrapbook or blurb-ify or leave as digital files on my computer) I had some thoughts on the value of photos and which ones are the most important.

These are the categories of pictures I think most regular people have:

  1. Pictures of people you love, people you never knew but your loved ones loved, and pictures of yourself and your life that your loved one would love to see.
  2. Pictures of things you did, places you went to, events you were part of, things you want to remember.
  3. Pictures that have no real meaning – something that made you laugh or tickled your fancy or outraged you, that no one would relate to or understand in 20 years.
  4. Gorgeous, spectacular landscapes and scenes.

In times gone by the only pictures we had were category 1 and we were lucky to have more than a few of them to represent whole families and lifetimes. They are so precious! They should be scanned and duplicated and spread through every branch of the family, preferably with names, place, date and other information detailed on the back of the print.

These days a new baby can have hundreds of pictures taken of them every day. A wedding album will have dozens if not hundreds of images. People like me who like to take self portraits might have 1500 pictures of themselves that they have taken in the last 2 years. We have no way of knowing how digital photos are going to hold up (think of the pink and yellow faded prints of the 70s – no one knew that would happen.) So shouldn’t we print and keep aside a few of the best and carefully note our names, dates, places and other information for those who come after us? I guess that’s what announcements (and holidays cards) are for – sharing the best of the best pictures with our loved ones.

Category 2, the snapshots of our happy times, are probably the numerous in most people’s albums. The bulk of them are often poorly composed, focused and exposed, and they often leave out the key players (ourselves) and yet they evoke such memories! These are the “remember when” photos. They make for great scrapbook layouts – a spread of photos with descriptive captions and labels telling the story. They’re awesome fun to share online with other people who were there, or who wished they could be there. But 20 years down the road do these pictures have value without their story? If the pictures are mixed together in a shoebox with no labels your kids are going to wonder what they’re looking at  – who are the girls standing on a staircase? why are they dressed like that? If they don’t know the answers, how many of those pictures are they going to want to look at or save?

Category 3, the random snapshots, are part of our new digital age, I think. I would never have wasted film on the warning on the back of the peanut jar or the horrific ingredients list on a package of coffee creamer, but I took digital snapshots of them. In 20 years who is going to understand or value those photos? An archivist would wonder what my fascination was with food packaging. In 20 years I might wonder what my past self was thinking. In 100 years people might find it interesting to see that we put corn syrup and chemically altered oils in our coffee instead of milk (hopefully they don’t think that I did that!) but I doubt that my picture will be the source of that information. Mostly these pictures are junk and we know it. They’ll never be printed and if (when) the hard drive crashes we won’t be sad that they’re gone. I wonder what percentage of my photos fall into this category? Maybe I should go and delete most of them right now, or put them in a folder that says “junk, not important.”

Category 4, the take-your-breath-away view from the top of the Great Wall of China, or the sunset from the beach, is tricky. They might be beautiful if you have any skill as a photographer. Sadly a great many people who take those shots do not have any skill. These people should admit that and shoot a self portrait, or ask a person (preferably one holding a fancy looking camera, demonstrating that they might have some skill) to shoot a picture of them with the view in the background. Then buy a few postcards. Or don’t bother at all – we have the google now. There are 242 MILLION pictures of the Great Wall of China in google images today.

I love to take epic landscapes and pictures of quirky architecture and views of Japanese gardens as much as anyone, but I’m starting to see that these photos don’t always have lasting value. Unless YOU are in the photo, I don’t want to look at an album of your epic landscape pictures. A few, sure, but not many. Your descendants will feel the same way. One scrapbook spread (or digital collage or blurb double page spread) per awesome scene/location is reasonable – anything extra needs to show you or someone you know to make the cut.

Obviously if you do have photog skills and you take a really awesome shot share it with the world, sell it as a stock photo, use it on your blog, print out some enlargements for your family and friends to hang on their walls! But in that case you just choose the best one – not 400 of them.

And these category 4 photos need to have names and dates and details written on the back too – a photo of a temple that says “Da Nang, shore leave, 1968” means a whole lot more than a random slightly blurry photo, but you know it would’ve been even better if you’d been standing in the foreground!

So after all that, what does this mean for you and me when we’re sorting our pictures?

  • delete the ones that have no value at all – the duplicates that didn’t work, the ones in which the toddler ran out of frame. If a stranger would not recognize that there is a person in the picture, it’s a dud. Toss bad pictures. Don’t make someone sort through 100 dim, blurry failures to find the one gorgeous perfect shot (most people won’t bother)
  • learn to fix the simple stuff like red eye. You can also brighten up dark pictures sometimes – every photo program has simple fix buttons.
  • choose the very best, most memorable and perfect photos and print them. Put them in an album or a book, send them to people who you love or people who love you. Make sure you have them scanned or backed up too, but if you share them with your family you are bringing joy to others at the same time as creating a real backup.
  • if you go somewhere beautiful try to get yourself in some of the pictures of the view. When you make a memory book for yourself you can fill it with epic landscapes, but don’t expect anyone else to look at it. Make a book with a few epic landscapes and lots of pics of you being there and doing stuff and share that.
  • If the seemingly-random picture of the tree is to make the cut you need to write down the story. Put it on the back of the photo (carefully) or add it as a caption in an album. The story is almost always MORE important than the picture. Try writing about it as if the photo was lost. Maybe you don’t even need the photo any more (especially if it was a bad quality snapshot that didn’t come close to capturing your memory)

Funny thing, I remember my father making our two main albums which, I think, were a reworking of a previous storage system (boxes or albums). I was horrified that he was editing the pictures so harshly, choosing only the best – he actually threw photos away! He told me that they weren’t good pictures, that we had better ones. I disagreed and saved some of them. But he created two good albums with great pictures of our family life, and I’d say they are just right – not too many or too few pictures, just enough.

I guess we come around to our parents’ points of view eventually.

I am waiting for the slides and negatives to come back from I’ve seen the images online and a whole lot of them are not great. But there are some absolute treasures in there and I’m excited to make sure that they are shared and enjoyed and preserved for future generations.


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