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Sunday, 08 October 2023


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We have a box of photos and negatives dating from the mid 80's, using a point and shoot, up to the early 2000's when we got a digital camera. All those photos are of us, or our cats , (no kids) and we recognize all the people, though we struggled with dates. Only a few decades and we struggled with dates. Sheesh.

At the bottom of the box I found a trove of medium format black and white negatives. I digitized them, then my wife and I were astonished. We hadn't known those photos existed. They are late 1940's to mid 1950's, we think and are mostly of my wife's father's family. We recently showed the photos to two of my wife's mom's sisters (85 and 89, and don't look a day over 70) and while they didn't quite gush, there were several of "That's me!" Or, I had forgotten that photo was taken. But even they struggled with identifying people, since the in-family resemblances are strong. Sister's resembling each other and their mom. Father and brothers or sons resembling each other. No dates on the photos, and only the internal evidence and memories to go by. As the oldest child, my wife took a photo book of her parent's wedding album to her mom's funeral, and some of the old people were reduced to tears, not of sadness at the death of their friend, but at the emotional memories stirred up.

The "Instant Relatives" label for these photos is very clever and humorous!

Is the subject of anonymous photos a bummer? It can be if you personalize it. All these mementos of past lives cast away like so much trash. And then consider that 99% of today’s images will simply be “deleted" having no material presence…that’s a big bummer.

But note that there actually is a very lively niche market for anonymous photos! For example, I have an acquaintance who has devoted decades to collecting these photos. His collection is so richly built that he has donated subsets of it to museums (ex. MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago) and lent them to artists who have used them to curate and create some terrific artistic publications. Yes, the subjects are still unknown … but, hey, so are the subjects of so many of the world’s most beloved paintings!

In the end, I am more saddened by the loss of materiality in popular photography. I second your admonition and encourage everyone to, at the very least, get their family and friends photos printed.

I had this same thought at a vintage shop a few moths back. There were entire boxes of slides
and prints for sale. I was most fascinated by the slides and prints that did in fact have very detailed writing.

These were captured by people that were very engaged in the process. They spent what I know is a great amount of time to label each image with details, often including the five W's. And yet, here they were, sitting on a table, for sale at $12 for a box of Kodachromes, to strangers!!?? So sad for someone that shares the same values and sentiments around these photographic records as Mike.

There was a part of your post that confused me a bit. Your father was very organized in collecting and managing this important family archive, but upon his death were all lost because of something he did or didn't do? Can you share how this was lost?

I think that beyond a couple of generations photographs stop being relationally important and end up being records. I have a photo of my great-great-grandmother who immigrated from Germany. My mother has a few scattered memories of her (her great-grandmother of course) and views the photo warmly. I find the photo very interesting, and I'm certainly glad we have it. But, it's interesting as a record of my family tree. I don't have any sentimental attachment to it.

I have a few photos of my great-grandmother who lived into my pre-teens. I knew her well. I view her photo warmly as my mother viewed her great-grandmother. My kids find it interesting, but of course have no real attachment to it.

I have gigabytes of photographs of my kids and family. I'm making peace with the fact that photos that are important to me will, at best, be only records for my great-great grandchildren. And of course that assumes that the photographs survive at all--in digital format.

Our son has been working since before Covid on digitizing, annotating, organizing and sharing almost 100 years of family photographs and videos. We were and are a family of cameras and occasionally videos.

It's not unusual for family members to spend an hour or two together on Skype reviewing photos and documents (thank you Ancestry), bringing back memories and telling stories. One day we visited (by appointment) the archives of a university attended by three generations to view and copy student lists and documentary photographs.

It's been a lot of work. Happy work. And once done, thanks to almost unlimited and nearly free storage and sharing, work that will endure and hopefully won't need to be repeated.

Coda: When this digital thing started, I committed to naming each folder with the date and camera used ... "2008-04-09 Canon". This has worked well for me but I'd like to know how others organize their images.

Good advice and easy to achieve given the wealth of storage systems available these days. One addition. I have negatives and prints of people my parents knew before I was around - I have no idea who these people are but they might want to have these images. My parents are gone now - no way to capture that information even though I hang on to the images. If you have similar items talk with people who can identify the 5W's right now before they are gone and record that information.

In the 80s and 90s every 35mm cartridge I developed came with a stack of prints I didn’t want. I bought my first digital camera in 2000 to eliminate the cost of all of that. I have no regrets. I’m very good with meta tagging.

Good point.

Just under two years ago I went through hundreds of images of my family - principally my wife and our daughters, in fact, but some of the wider family - and scanned the best few dozen. Then I had a photo book made of the scanned images, with text for each selected image, simply listing who was in the shot and whatever I could remember about the circumstances. I had about half-a-dozen copies of the photo book made and distributed to various family members at Christmas. There are still the hundreds of un-noted slides and prints, but at least we have a representative sample of them annotated, multiply printed and distributed. And it would even be possible to get additional copies of the photo book made, if required - the company concerned keeps old orders available to be reprinted.

Well, the post is noteworthy by having one sentence with about 118 words, according to my very quick count. I can see why a few words on the back of a photo would be no problem for you!

[But also two sentences one right after the other with one word each! That one you counted might be the longest sentence ever on TOP. --Mike]

Mon ami.

No real photo of your grandson? Welcome to the new world when virtual is the new real. Things that you cannot touch, smell, taste and hear is the new real - like cryptocurrency.

Grandpa can print some 4"x6" real prints and give to the parents and see the looks on their faces when you next meet up.

This has always been a sore point for me. In our family we have shoeboxes of photographs, each (almost each) simply annotated on the back with 'name, date, place, occasion' or similar.

Despite the abilities of our digital world to do this even better (a lot of it automated) who does it now in regular families? Even if digital images go up into the cloud, what are the prospects of longevity, or the preservation of those vital 'who, when where, what' data? And how much stuff just disappears when a new phone is purchased?

Mike's point about the lack of notation on photographs also extends into paintings. In the BBC TV series "Fake or Fortune" the couple that own the painting "Portrait of a (young) Lady," attributed to 18th-century society French painter Philip Mercier, lament that "Who is it? Somebody's daughter and we want to know..."


I think I've mentioned this before on TOP, but I used to live a few blocks from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. They have a monthly flea market there, in the parking lot, and it's pretty big. Among the various kinds of goods, mostly crap, you will find boxes and boxes of discarded photos, many of them from World War II and later wars. I expect Vietnam has come up since I left, or will be coming up soon. Anonymous faces, anonymous war places that someone once thought worth picturing. None of the photos I looked at had any pencilled information whatever; they were all anonymous, probably thrown out when the people in the photos, or the people who took them, finally died. Some of the people photographed probably died in the war, but others would have had long and perhaps interesting lives in the LA area. (And there wouldn't have been many more interesting areas to live in than the LA basin between WWII and the present.) And it *is* sad.

For a variety of reasons, this year I've been going through my negative files and making nice prints of (what are now) vintage photos of family members and friends. Strange how the passage of 40-50 years can give images once thought unimportant new value.
I've been making 4x6 images on 5x7 paper (FB DW of course) and distributing them to the people in the pictures, and their descendants. Each labeled on the back!
How I'll deal with the mass of color negatives that start in 1982, well, one thing at a time.

For the most part, the past is regret and/or guilt. Just like the future is fear.

Would you be looking to the past at all, if the 'now' was compelling?

It's not sad, it just is. Nobody else is thinking about you. They've got their own lives to run and live.

Some very good advise on creating a manageable collection of family photos to pass on to future generations. And also timely for me.

I guess like many baby boomers, my father shot slide film and captured life moments from his late teens in the 1950's up till my teen years in the late 1980's. Maybe once a year, likely Christmas, the projector would be brought out and images shown. I realized that there were many amazing images that I had never seen. So, I borrowed a good scanner and have been busy organizing, selecting and scanning. It's a lot of work! And I wonder sometimes why am I doing this? Many of the slides are Kodachrome, and the sheer jewel-like beauty of them keeps me going! I plan on having prints made of the best, putting them in an album and labelling each print well.
I am interested in my family history and have many questions about my ancestors, which will likely go unanswered. So I see this as a responsibility, in hopes that my project will be appreciated by someone down the line, who shares an interest in family history. But who knows?

Mike sad to hear about your family pictures. When my Mom died two years ago I discovered that she had kept a secret treasure trove of family photographs (many were slides). She never once told me she had these photographs, yet she knew my intense interest in photography. To this day I don’t know why. Fortunately, I can identify many of the people in the photos, but not everyone. And, now there is no one to ask. Despite the not knowing, I was thrilled when I found them and going through them was like seeing the family stories come to life.I often wonder what will happen to all of the photographs I have taken. I have printed many, but certainly not all of them. Will there be a thriving “lively niche market” for anonymous digital images? Time will tell.

Back in the day, I either had access to a black and white darkroom or had one of my own. That changed when I got married for the first time.

The basement of our first home the perfect room for a darkroom. Full kitchen sink. Small, easy to insulate windows. Lots of room for a table or two. Unfortunately, it was also the laundry room and my new bride forbid me from installing a darkroom lest it prevent her from doing laundry. Wanting to keep the peace, I relented. Over the next couple of years, I continued shooting but instead of developing the film, I dropped it into a cotton laundry bag.

I was the only source of income back then and money was tight. We weren't living hand to mouth but we didn't have much wiggle room, either. The film languished along with my hopes of someday being able to process it.

One day, following a particularly nasty family catastrophe, I tossed the bag of film in the garbage convinced in that moment of that I'd never be able to develop it. The bag contained 25 - 30 rolls of film. That was 27 years ago. I sometimes imagine someone running across my plastic film canasters in that WV landfill.

The days of finding a shoebox of old prints in the attic or drawer are going away.
Finding a box of CD's..., will folks in a decade or more even be able to read them? Try finding a zip disk reader now.

For the vast majority of us, when we die, only the people who knew us in life will remember us. After the last of them dies, no one then alive will know or care, even if all the information is available on the photos. At that point, the photos will be useful, if at all, only as historical artifacts. Except for a few family photos, does it really matter if we label or keep them? That goes double for non-family photos taken as part of a hobby - their only value will be as historic artifacts, and only if they show something of interest to future generations.

Personally, I prefer distributing copies of family pictures and anything else people ask for to those interested as soon as they are taken and/or printed. They seem to be more valuable and appreciated in the present time, and that gives the recipient the option to keep or delete as they wish. I love seeing some of my pictures hanging in the homes of family members and friends. And I don't have to worry about any heirs having to sort through my archive after I am dead - they can safely chuck everything with the knowledge that I already shared anything worth sharing while alive.

When Dad died I inherited all his negs and prints dating from the 1920s (he was born in 1922). Plus hundreds of negs and even glass plates from his newspaper photographer brother.

I've scanned them all, but like you, I've been frustrated by the lack of identification on 90% of the prints, and nothing at all for the negs. I know a lot of them, being family, but like you, I exhort family members to write down the details. Deaf ears, of course.

But my solution is to put them into photo books with as much info as I can find. That makes them much more permanent and accessible.

Just another point - how I wish Dad and his brother had taken photos of their neighbourhoods, with annotations. Every time I see a glimpse of a street or locality, I wish for more. I encourage everyone who carries a camera, please, please document your location before it's lost. We're losing all the shops and old buildings, service stations, rail stations faster than we realise. Now you see it, now it's gone. Please take photos of places, not just people. And write down what they are.

I know you are making quite a different and meaningfull point but, with all the spirituality and humanism of a toilet seat, I am going to ignore yours and make a different, coldly aesthetic one. What is notable about these vernacular family photos is that they overwhelmingly have zero aesthetic merit. We don't expect every commercial or amateur photographer to have a distinctive style or even a bare spark of creativity, but that batting average really ought not be infinitesimal -- and trust me, I have touched and eyeballed hundreds of thousands of these images.

While I collect modern and contemporary fine art photographs, as well as important 19th century works, for years I also amused myself by being what fine art photography dealers call a "picker" -- which is to say someone who finds vernacular work, or great pictures among vernacular work, that can and should be recontextualized into the fine art world. I am an image junkie, which allows me to go through a photo or ephemera fair like the raptor-in-the-kitchen scene in Jurassic Park (as I was once described in a newsstand magazine that you edited), but a junkie with an eye. (Modesty would detract from my point here.) One can talk about those finds that I bought for a pittance, sold to some of the best dealers in the world, who in turn sold them to important collections, public and private. But my point is to talk about the million instead of the one in a million. A large ephemera photo fair that will take a good 20 hours to plow through over a weekend is not a wellspring of wonderous aesthetic fecundity, and the portraits are the absolute worst. What is remarkable is that virtually all of them show no personality, aesthetic differences, or merit whatsoever. Isn't that weird?


Here's a photo project I never did. I worked at about a dozen companies in my previous IT career, all were "cubicle farms". I thought of photographing all the people I knew at all those places at their desks. Workplaces are under-recorded photographically, I think, especially compared with the time we spend at work. It would have been interesting to count up all those people with whom I had more than a passing relationship with. I spent more time with them than any of my relatives except for close family. Cubicle farms don't seem like interesting places to photograph but maybe that's wrong.

Since so much is online, I do wish I could pay for a safe family archive that did not have a monthly payment connected. It would not have to have massive storage, just enough for reasonably sized photos with descriptions.

I suppose starting a new Flickr Free account is the best option for now. I would pay upfront for something ad free, like Smugmug, family archive version.

Why would you value the family photos of someone you never knew?

Perhaps the value we as put on these images is disproportionate. Should we necessarily attach such significance to objects and people that are gone? What are we holding onto? How do those images help us?

Formal portraits taken in Victorian times and early 20th century would have been expensive and possibly the only record of some people. I have a single 5x4" negative of the small core group at my maternal grandparents' wedding in 1936, from which I had machine prints made for myself and their 3 other grandchildren. That single photos contains the essence of the occasion. There is certainly no need for the thousands that get taken nowadays.

I was still 100% film-based when the kids were young so took plenty of colour neg photos of them (most of them dated) so they can keep those if they wish. I occasionally get a smartphone photo printed so that we have something as they grow and change (and also because twice a smartphone has died without the photos being backed up, something I'd never allow to happen to mine).

But when I die I can't imagine my 2 children will have any interest in my 35mm slides or the boxful of contact sheets.

From personal experience, you need do do more than just adding notations - they need to be understandable to the next generation and beyond if they are to have lasting value.

When my parents died in the 90s, we found a number of photo books with penciled comments for each print. Unfortunately, almost every one of those comments was something like "Me with Sue, who everyone says is my twin." We had no idea of who the childhood friend "Sue" was, the year of the photo, or the location of the photo. The photos were probably great memories for my mother, but almost all were meaningless to us.

- Tom -

Mr. Croft is right. Please photograph your neighborhood, shops, trucks, signs, and commercial features of your home area. My father took hundreds of schmaltzy pictures of little kids, birthday parties, and unidentified coworkers. Decades later, they hold little interest. I so wish he had recorded the cultural features of where he lived.

having just gone through the loss of my wife to covid and facing the priority of selling up and moving, i can assure any one that callousness is the last thing on my m ind s i dispose of 'precious, memories. does any one realize the amount of time it takes to do this when the pressing need is to just get prioroty thingd done.

my grandma remarried late in life and she died before here husband. he held a bonfire and burnt mant family records. for years i blamed him.

having just gone through a silmilar process i find my self forgiving and moving on.

mike is right the time to do thid id now not when urgency calls.

if this is important to anyone then step up yourself and start now

sorry for the typos above. very emotional right now

Someday someone will be the last person to ever think about each of us. After that point we might as well never have existed. It's sad, but it is what it is.

For some, that time comes fast, for others (famous people) it migth take many centuries, but the end result is the same.

But printing images and annotating them might prolong the time...

Most of the pictures I take with my phone automatically record some level of what, where and when without me doing anything.

The pictures I take with my dumb "real" cameras don't do this, so you have to annotate them in the computer by hand, which is tedious and sort of low value because at least these days the "real"pictures will probably be mixed with the "smart" pictures from the phone, which can provide the context you need.

If you are careful with these files some enterprising collector of ephemera sometime in the future will know almost anything they need to about where and when the pictures came from ... no printing needed. But of course being careful with the files is hard.

It would be interesting to see 50 years from now how many people lose their prints vs. lose the files that the prints would have come from. In the last 25 my record with files is much much better than anything physical (books, CDs, LPs, etc). Who knows.

Probably though when I'm not around to carefully keep them around anymore they will again become the ephemera they started out as.

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