In stable Midwestern households, photographs accumulate. We don’t move as often in Iowa, and when we do, we know how to store photographic paper so it doesn’t get wet and humidity is suitable to preserve them. I’m speaking of printed photographs more than digital. Well into the post-millennium-bug digital era, we continue to have uses for printed images. We tape them to our computers, pin them on bulletin boards, use magnets to hang them on the refrigerator, and frame some to place on the bedroom dresser, piano, or whatnot. We know what a whatnot is in Iowa.
Our millennial child has fewer printed photos than we do. One challenge of aging is to assign meaning to countless photographs so we don’t just dump them on the next generation. That was true of my parents’ generation. When Mother died, Sister retained the family photographs. I made a project of digitizing the ones in which I was interested. I did that while Mother was still living. She was well-aware of approaching the end of life and we had many happy discussions. It is hard to know if that will be possible for our child and me.
Before I ditched all of my Yahoo products, I wrote an autobiography in photographs on Flickr in 2011. It was 16,000 words and 133 images with a page devoted to each image. It was widely viewed after I posted a link on social media. I will be drawing on that narrative in my current project.
What does one do with thousands of paper photographs and even more digital ones?
- The first task is to find the images. Most people have a place where most photographs are stored. Those are easy. There are many more sources, I’ve found. Some are in ceramic dishes in the bedroom. Many are filed with written pages in file folders, and digital images remain on various computing devices around the house and need migrating to a common platform. Collecting them into one place can be a major challenge.
- We must turn every page and look at them. Watch out for the rabbit holes of memories. At the same time, enjoy them while examining them.
- Sorting can mean multiple things. For paper photos, made with exposed film, there are often mistakes where the image is intelligible. Discard those from the collection while looking at them. In the digital era, we tend to take multiple exposures of the same scene because the cost of doing so is negligible and we want a good shot. As long as you are there, delete the 19 worst of 20 exposures and keep only the best one or two.
- Rededicate space for storage. Some will remain in frames or on the refrigerator and some will find a home in a cool, dry space or in the cloud.
- Decide what you want to keep. For me, that means how many images of the cucumber patch are necessary? More than you might think, yet not that many. How many photos of geese flying over the lake? In a series of images from Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, keep only the ones that make a narrative point. If there were multiple visits, keep some from each distinct time period. At the beginning this seems intimidating, although having a process and sticking with it is helpful. Continuous improvement of the process makes things better as we go along.
- Do every batch the same way the first time, and do it right. Define for yourself what that means.
- Convert selected paper images to digital.
- File photographs in an organized fashion by subject, theme, or date. It will make it easier to find something when a project calls for it.
- Take time to enjoy them. Especially as we age, there are only so many times to look at old photographs. The reality is we may not return to them again. Make notes on the ones intended to pass along.
Mid-westerners can be lucky for the stability, financial security, and good health that is possible here. When one is getting a grip on seven or eight decades of Midwestern life, a thoughtful process — one that improves as we proceed — seems necessary. I would also acquire a whatnot.
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