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Thursday, 05 February 2009


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What a great post. I can't help but think of all the old photographs taken of my family when I was younger, boxed up and stored in albums, the clear plastic sticky and heavy on the photos. I haven't looked at them in years.

I also can't help but think about the younger generation and how they will mostly interact with their photos on a computer screen, saving thousands of photos on a single hard drive, or on a mysterious digital universe called MySpace or Facebook or Flickr (and I'm sure many others as we move forward).

I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it's neither - and it's just the way it is.

Great post.

I have trouble envisioning an old hard drive in a yard sale with a sticker saying "contains photographs". Will it cost more than a freshly formatted one of the same characteristics? less? same?

I am also nostalgic and this is possibly the nicest blog entry I have ever read. Great stuff.

Wonderful essay. Oddly I was just in the attic looking at my grandfathers Argus projector and slides. When he retired from the late great Johns-Manville in 1956 the office gave him an Argus C-4 (which I also still have) and projector.
For the next 15 years he took photos constantly. There he is standing next to my grandmother and his 1958 Pontiac, holding the C-4.
I think I will take the slides out and take a look back. Thank goodness I kept them.

Mike, this is the kind of post I love to read. This, and the preceding story, are about photography! OK, so its alright to read about new technology some of the time, but this tells me things that I really want, and need, to know!

From the age of about three (which is as far back as I can remember) my mother used to give me a large cardboard box of the family photographs to play with on rainy days. They had been taken by various uncles, aunts, grandparents, etc., and by my mother. We weren't too well off, and these were my 'toys'.

I spent hours at a time, over years, playing with them, giving the people in them names, constructing gatherings and scenes. It turned me to taking photographs, eventually as my wonderful living.

My older brother, the writer, has the box of photographs now, and is busy in his supposed retirement using them to provide the information for a book of family memoirs.

Scott, these photographs, and your boxes of slides, are much more than family photographs. They are genuine snapshots, and their welfare has been entrusted to you, so please feel honored.

Ray Kinnane


I am in the process of digitizing over 15000 slides and MF and large format negatives. I have been restoring everything from tintypes this past year. It will take tons of time to get thru them all and I have been looking up what they used to take each photo. There were minoltas, voightlander bessa, medium format brownies, you name it.

To me, old photographs represent family gatherings. Either we'd pull out the albums, or dad would grab the projector, kill the lights after mom made some popcorn, and we'd all laugh, or talk about family trips and the like.
I was fortunate enough to have a father who was a professional photographer -so we had (and still have) LOTS of old Kodachromes to view.
Years later, when I was shooting my own slides, I was reminded of those family gatherings, not only because of the click of the projector and the whirring fan in the darkness, but from the smell. Those old projector bulbs used to give off a really unique odour -kinda' like Grandpa's old tube radio.

I sometimes think that my photos are dilluted by lack of editing. OK, insufficient editing, because I do toss on average, about half of my photos (plus a few that I delete in camera). It's really hard to delete many of them because my personal connection to them makes them interesting to look at, but the sheer volume makes it difficult to appreciate them. I guess that's what our photo books are for ... but I still can't help think, every time I open up my catalog (currently in Elements but moving to Lightroom) that I need to get rid of some of the excess. (I'm talking about keeping only the best couple from a batch of photos shot at the same time). This is a bit like what Mike has written in the past about creating a portfolio, but different because they're personal/nostalgic and not intended to record memories and not represent my photography. The editing I'd have to do would have to be with a different mindset.

I guess this is part of a "less is more" philosophy I have; I appreciate my lineup of lenses when every lens has a specific purpose. I would appreciate my photos more when I know that every photo I have is a keeper. It's just harder to identify the keepers when you're talking about family snaps. Sometimes there are just too many technically good ones, and sometimes you just have to keep a technically bad picture.

Scott Parsons:

Thank you for this great post. Great stuff! Really really great!

It bring me to tears, simple and direct.

Thank you!


These last two posts express what photography is really about for the vast majority of people. Wonderful stuff. How many of us of "a certain age" have similar collections of photos, awaiting our attention to organize, digitize, print and save them?

Thats awesome.
I think it would be great to somehow produce a couple of coffee table type books from those slides, track down Greg and Val, and give them the books as Christmas gifts one year. They probably have to call EMS as the surprise hits.
I have related story;
My Dad's cousin was at one time a news photographer and for a very short time he owned a portrait studio. His career, and life, was cut short by an auto accident, but while he lived he was that family member that would document the occasions. He's been gone since the mid sixties. Now a couple of years ago my Dad found one of his cousin's cameras in the basement of the house he grew up in, among an assortment of personal effects. My Dad gave the camera to me...its a well-used but fine working Ciro-Flex TLR. Of course, ....duhhh....I gave no thought to it and opened the back. In that split second we're all familiar with, I slapped it shut after seeing a milli-milli-millisecond of bright red paper.
Long story short...I had the film developed and found two fine negatives showing my grandmother (the photographer's aunt), in her flower garden, in the backyard of my father's childhood home. Sharp, well exposed, and now a part of my scrapbook. There was also a blurry, over-exposed, frame of my own cousin as a toddler. It appears only three frames were taken, I wrecked only the tail of film when I opened the door and there were no "adjacent" frames. My Dad says these were probably shot in 1962.
Never open a camera belonging to your departed family members in anything but complete darkness.

And what if you were lost inside that camera for 50 years ...


David Pogue had a blog entry concerning this issue, although he was talking about video storage: http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/13/why-we-shoot-home-videos/

I think this by Scott Parsons and your "Authoritarianism" column are two of TOP's best.

I have gone all digital since 2002, with the purchase of a Fuji S602 - which I still have, BTW.

I often ponder the same question. I have photographs of my mother and her parents from 1917. I found a photograph of her paternal grandparents. What of our computer records will survive for over 100 years? I'm not the only one concerned. All of my digital negatives are stored on a Buffalo RAID drive. I always think about a failure, and so does everyone else.

But I never could go back to film. Digital has been a renaissance for me. I have been looking at the new Fuji folder, but at that price I could have a Canon 5D and one or two lenses.

Dennis: "I sometimes think that my photos are dilluted by lack of editing. OK, insufficient editing"

Yes, absolutely. In my case, I have determined by experiment that I get push-back from my family if I try to edit further; sometimes even for the level I edit now. And yet it's still very clear to me that my snapshot collection is diffuse and not very gripping, largely due to lack of editing.

I'm trying to move to two levels of display, showing just the really good ones, and then the rest of the non-throwaway part of the set. I happen to be doing this in online albums, where it's easier to do this sort of hypertexty thing, but you could do it in albums as well if you wanted. I don't think printing snapshots out has much place these days, nobody will ever see them.

Dear Scott,

I hope you're taking care of your old friends. Remember to keep them in mylar bags, with a good, stiff, buffered backing board and a packet of silica gel. This will help to ensure a long, healthy life span. Anything less risks premature demise.


Okay, now getting serious. In the pre-USENET days, this would've been a hopeless case, but...

If you want to earn some really serious karma points (probably enough to let you reincarnated least as an avatar), for very little effort there's a fair chance you can get those photographs back to their family.

Pick a couple of the more distinctive slides, make scans of them, and put them up on Flickr or FaceBook or something like that, with a little caption that explains that you found these at a yard sale and includes what particulars you know from the captions, and that you're hoping to be able to return them to the family. There is at least a reasonable possibility you'll make contact with some insanely grateful people.

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Loved this post! Deep and so beautifully written it made me feel really melancholic even though at that very moment I could hear my young kids playing in their rooms...

I have memories as an early child of a stack of slide carousels in a corner of one of the closets. I remember occasionally rummaging through them, pulling out slides and holding them up to the light, not knowing who, what or where they were about. Flash forward a couple decades and I decided to dig them out while visiting my parents to see them for real and give my wife, my parents, and I something to have a chuckle over.

I found a sheet to take the place of the now torn screen, searched several stores before I found a replacement projector bulb and set it all up for "show night".

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Twenty slides into the first carousel, both parents were asleep. Let's face it... just because they're old memories, sometimes a good nap turns out to have more value!


The lowly snapshot is often derided as a sub-category of photography that holds little interest for the sophisticated viewer. The term "just snapshots" is used by the artistically pretentious to disparage the work of others.

How unfair.

Scott Parsons' beautifully written essay elevates the genre to it's rightful place. It seems that personal memories captured from an involved viewpoint can indeed hold value for future generations, even if the viewer has no personal links to the past portrayed.

I agree wholeheartedly.

Well done, and thank you.

A friend of mine recently salvaged bags full of old negatives and prints. They were destined for the garbage dump, didn't even make the cut for the thrift store.

She put up a few on her website:

Unfortunately there is almost no labeling, so we can only guess about the stories behind the pictures. We think that most of the material is from the 1920's to 1940's.

That this is a great post is evident from the comments above. I especially agree with the writer who said that this is what photography is all about - not the latest mega-pixel wonder (I have one of those), not the print accepted for a prestigious international exhibition (I had one of those once, a long time ago) but the memories of the babies who are now big city lawyers (I have one of those as well) and the parents and others who are long gone but whose memory still inspires. Thank you everyone!

Agreed - my favorite posts to read are usually about the nostalgic value of the process. It is very inspiring to remember the extended life of what we do. It also reminds us the value of editing and labeling. This reminds me a bit of my favorite ever TOP post: Reify and Redact....

Thanks for a great daily read that I really look forward to!

John - Boston

Thanks for your reply David ... it's nice to read (and join in) a discussion about this personal aspect of photography - thanks Mike and Scott !

I will say that while I have thousands of pictures in my catalog, I'm far more organized there and making better and more current use of my digital pictures than my film pictures.

My printed photo books (the new family album) represent a sort of culling down to some of the best personal photos. For digital, I'm thinking of doing it through cataloging, or something, where I effectively archive some of the ones that I can't bring myself to delete, and only see the keepers when I bring up my working catalog. I dunno - it will require more thought.

Superb post that beautifully describes the essence of photography for me.

Most of the time it is unspoken and unacknowledged, but each time we press the shutter button we are capturing a moment that will never come again. And in viewing those photos - either immediately afterward or decades later, we are glimpsing our own mortality and the mortality of those around us.

Sure it sounds a little maudlin when put that way, but I believe most photographers (and videographers and diarists) intuitively understand it.

What better reason to carefully compose and expose and edit and store our work?

Thanks for the nice post.

Kent: I dunno, seems to me the end message of Scott's essay is that these photos DON'T hold value for later generations. At least the specific ones that sparked it all. Despite being carefully organized and labeled, and in good condition.

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