« Kulwant Roy: Indian History in a Yellow Crate of Negatives | Main | Long Days and Sleepless Nights »

Thursday, 19 June 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I was always told to never write on a picture, even on the back. Doubly so for ballpoint pens. But in my other hobby, genealogy, I am always extremely happy to find a photo with identification, usually written on the back with a ballpoint pen.

Ah yes. For many years my mum has put the date and the names of the people, on the back of photographs.

And she puts the names on the back at their relative positions. So then we know that Auntie Joan is the one standing up, third from the left.

Very important point you make here, Mike. People should think of their photos as something of potential historical value - at least within the family or the neighbourhood. Therefore: Make notes of the actual situation with the SELECTED pictures.
I for a start make folders of the geographical positions. Then I make a selection of the "best" pictures within each folder. Next thing is to give each selected file a proper name. Finally the very best pictures get even more data whithin their files. Thats a good start for all of us - now - and in the potential future use of the pictures.

I think this is a particularly interesting topic as we move into the digital age. In reality this should get easier with digital. Metadata is something that we've been dealing with for digital file formats for almost forever. However if you say things like EXIF and IPTC to the average person making happy snaps with digital they're probably going to look at you funny.

Is there good, inexpensive software out there that will batch write this kind of standard metadata into files? From my admittedly limited experience, I have yet to see anything.

It seems like Picasa (or competitors) would be naturals for this, but as far as I can tell, Picasa generates its own separate files for metadata instead of writing to the original file itself. I suppose this is a good conservative approach as the original file is always preserved, but this doesn't concretely associate the metadata with the image that it describes. If the index gets broken or lost then the metadata is gone and needs to be rebuilt.

I use Picasa as an example, because the other (big) hurdle for the consumer space is that not only must the software be competent, and fast, the interface also needs to be very intuitive and easy to use. It's also apropos because it's a natural combination to have this type of functionality integrated into cataloging programs.

What is the equivalent of "writing on the back with a ball-point pen" in the digital age?

As a professional historian, I whole heartedly support Mike's point here. The ability to identify the provenance of a photo is often dependent upon the select memories of only a few viewers. As a result, non-annotated pictures can quickly become the flotsam and jetsam of a forgotten history. This can be especially true with the elderly and their images. Extensive labeling does entail some labor, but consider this: A family gathering over old photos, coffee and cake (beer and warm pretzels?) is a very enjoyable way to counter the atomizing influence of TVs and computers.

Just don't do what my mother-in-law used to do: write the names of people on the front of the photo and usually right across their foreheads.

I know, I'm preaching to the converted, but I know from two recent experiences the importance of keeping such photos and that notations are helpful.

In the first instance, when my partner lost his mother, his sibling suggested that "No-one wants these old photos and slides, do they?", and offered to throw them out. I myself caught them, partly out of curiosity, but partly because, while that generation had no-one who was particularly interested in them, there was nothing to say a generation or two down the line there was not going to be a geneologist in the family who would see them as a goldmine, and be able to bring it all together. Hopefully I'll be able to get them all scanned and annotated with the current generation's help, and distribute them to all and sundry as an extra "backup".

...which leads to a second (or third?) cousin of my own family, a mad hobby geneologist (I say "mad" as a compliment; like I might say "mad photographer") who we didn't know but who caught up with our family and for whom we discovered, from my late grandfather's records and photos, a photo of his grandfather (in going-to-war uniform). Previously he had no photo at all. He was...well, ecstatic.

I guess that leads to a third story, of my brother-out-law. His is an Australian indigenous background, one where clans/families were split up and relocated repeatedly and the only records that were (able to be) kept were of a variety kept by the then-government, and which are of a harsh "officialese" variety. Now, as resources are being put to trying to bring back these records into some kind of genealogically coherent form (not easy, going from what I have seen, as names were changed and people were arbitrarily moved or died unknown in asylums), it is somewhat awe-inspiring to see in my brother-out-law the heart and familial and social enrichment that is occurring as all the different threads and previously-unknown histories begin to re-entwine.

It might be a cliche (or just an opportunity to quote Joni Mitchell) but sometimes "you don't know what you've got til it's gone".

I'd say keywords or info stored in metadata are practically a necessity for any archive. But all these will be useless 10, 20,... 50? ... 100? years from now. So it's back to the ballpoint on the back of a print.

Maybe we can improve on that and use an archival ink or a smearproof pencil. Or use annotated sleeves, albums, whatever. The point is we have to rely on prints (and hope that current inkjet technology won't let us down) and ways to mark those prints.

Unless you are a mini Corbis or some such and can afford to migrate media and databases and keep up with the latest LR, Aperture, OS's, file format specifications and on and on - your pixels won't survive the ravages of time nearly as well as those silver prints in my mom's attic.

If it matters to you - print it and WRITE ON IT!

Sounds harsh -- but I don't see other options for the historical long term.

Add a 5.5 inch border on the bottom of the print and use Photoshop to add text at the bottom.


And, thus, the RAW vs. Jpeg debate reaches a denoument; file formats are not neccesarily "forever". Print multiples on single sheets with titles, dates, etc., and store in archival sheets and boxes.

I'm finding cryptic notes in the backs of picture frames at my mothers house.


If you have the time, why not write down the who/what/why/when/where/how for each shot that you want to keep. Take digital photographs of each print and put together a book (with text) on one of the many online sites like mypublisher. Order copies for everyone in the family.

How about instead writing on the back of the print itself, we write the "who is it, what is it" information on a piece of archival acid free paper. Then we could adhere the paper to the back of the print with a good double sided adhesive. A lot of these adhesives or tapes claim to be archival. So even if they're not as good as claimed, I would think it would be a better solution than writing on the back of the print itself.

It's not just genealogists who want this info. I'm in the midst of a rephotography project, and would love to know more about the images I've selected to use - not just 'who' but 'where' and 'when'!

I'm firmly in the keyword-per-person and situation-in-captions camp. I wrote about my overall workflow in http://tomdibble.wordpress.com/2008/01/15/aperture-workflow/ but the gist of it (as it touches on capturing people) is:

1. Set up a keyword for every person photographed at more than a couple of events. Some people feel too many keyword entries in their library somehow "pollutes" it; I don't agree at all. Create hierarchies, and use them.
2. Set up a "button set" for whatever group of people were at an event you are working. Common sets will probably be kept for a really long time (for example, your immediate family). Others will be created, used for one event, then discarded. That's okay. What the button set buys you is a button to push (or a keyboard combination to hit) to tag a picture as containing a particular individual.
3. Capture, in captions, situations and positions (if there are multiple people in the picture). I've also moved to adding a "PeopleIndex" custom field to specifically capture the "Aunt Mae on left, Aunt Fae on right" bits.

Right now, I'm focused on just straight capture, confident that as long as I have the data captured, I can script its export (ex, to a printer with the keywords, caption, and PeopleIndex fields printed below). I haven't had any trouble migrating from digital library to digital library over the past 10 years, although I definitely see the potential risk there. When we *do* (rarely) print something out, there's an immediate identification scrawled across the back or in the margin, just like my parents did. The prints usually just don't get kept around long enough to be considered more permanent than the digital copies, but if it's going out of our hands (to a relative or friend), all the identifying information does indeed go with it.

So true. I've been gradually scanning and indexing my late father's huge collection of slides and negatives. Unfortunately for me, he had an excellent memory and seldom made any notes. The date stamps on the slide mounts and the processing mailers (proto-EXIF) has been helpful, but there are still plenty of unknowns.

If you have a collection of old photos, regardless of format, take them around to other family members and catalog their recollections. I'm planning on setting up a couple old fashioned slide-show at our next family get-together for just that purpose.

Or even just ask if they remember any particular vacation spots, what kinds of cars people drove, etc. Even random details like that can provide clues when you're looking at a pile of anonymous photos. My uncle happened to mention that a certain long-departed relative liked to wear elaborate feathered hats, and that was immediately helpful.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007