I have some picture-taking advice for my younger self. Have we invented that time machine yet, so I can go back and tell me? And, while I’m at it, tell my parents and my wife?
Maybe while I’m waiting for the Singularity to work on that, I can just tell you the basics that rank highest on the list. Write stuff down. Reduce to what’s important. Focus on people, not things.
This is top of mind because I just finished part two of the massive picture project–the one we all have–organizing and digitizing our photos. I think that’s on everyone’s “When I’m Retired” list which could also be “When I’m Furloughed… When I’m Stuck Inside for Days on End…” It doesn’t make the project more fun that you might have some time to work on it, though. But you should get started because those pictures are fading as I write. Plus global warming.
Find Someone’s Birthday to Motivate You
In my case, my brother had a milestone 60th birthday, which made the perfect excuse to finally dig out the parents’ albums and mine. As my dad used to say, the job was bigger than a breadbox and very nostalgic as it got me thinking about what my dad used to say. After several weeks of fiddling about and three intense days of bleary-eyed screen-staring, I digitized and organized 718 photos, which was a lot! Only about 30,000 more to go.
Here’s the first important thing I learned:
1. Date your pictures. Write the date on the back. Places and people, too, if possible.
This is my dad. It was in my dad’s photo album, and I probably would have recognized him anyway, but maybe not if someone handed me the photo randomly and said, “Who is that?” The photo album let me guess who it was, but when you digitize the photo, make sure you put people’s names in the title or tag the photo, and put the date somewhere, such as in the file name. Tagging in MS Windows will equal Keywords in Apple IOS, so use whichever. But LABEL!
The picture wasn’t dated. It was between a photo of him as an altar boy and his high school graduation, next to a very helpful article in the school paper saying that he was the editor of the school paper in 1948. It was not so helpful that this photo has no information on it. My dad died in 1999, and his family has mostly vanished, so there’s no one to ask. He’s somewhere between 12 and 15, I think, 1942-1945. (My parents were both conveniently born in 1930, which makes their ages easy to calculate.)
Or, take this one. My parents went to Germany when my dad was in the Army, somewhere around 1955-1958, during the Cold War. (My mother taught high school English to the GIs, which means she got paid and got to spend time in Germany with my Dad. Fiendishly clever, I always thought!) The picture above is between photos of the Army and photos of our house in Detroit in 1960. But is it a picture of my parents in Europe or back in Detroit? I labeled it Germany, but now that I look at it, that seems like an American house in the background.
In comparison, this next one is a little more helpful. It’s clearly in Europe, and my dad has his Army haircut. I’d guess 1956. This brings up my second piece of advice.
Landmarks Are Best as Time Machines
2. Take photos of People rather than Things. Photos of People With Things are even better.
I also recently found video of me with my kids at Butchart Gardens in 2004. Note: I’ve now been to Butchart Gardens three times, and my wife’s been there four times. The gardens are worth visiting, but the last time I was there I noticed that they looked very much the same as the other times.
As I was watching the video, my 9-year-old son, who is now in graduate school, was acting goofy, but I kept telling him to hush and move out of the shot. Bad Mom! I just kept filming the gardens, when I should have been filming him. At one point, I did finally turn and conduct a pretend “news interview” with him. He gestured grandly and explained that the garden had seventeen different levels and he’d seen fifteen of them, which suggested how he felt about that day. What a trooper! Parents dragging him around flowers for hours, while they stared through a camera. I hope we bought the kids some ice cream! There’s no pictures of that.
Of course, when you visit a landmark, you naturally want to take that picture as “proof you were there.” Sometimes–every 52nd photo or so–it’s an artistic, amazing photo that you and the friends and family you subject to it will marvel at. But my photos of the Grand Canyon are a lot more interesting with my 12-year-old brother flashing the peace sign in 1972 or where my wife at three years old was running pell mell away from her mother’s outstretched hand.
The Eiffel Tower is kind of interesting. My parents in the 1950s in front of a random car are preserved for posterity. But my parents in 1958 in front of the Eiffel Tower was eye-popping.
Less Is More
The jokes about people subjecting friends to lengthy slide shows from their vacation are ancient; they go back to when people made slides. (For readers younger than 50, slides were miniature photos made by a special photo developer that you projected on to a screen with special equipment. No, they didn’t move, have funny slogans that wiggled, or appear instantaneously, no Tik-Tok or Instagram… and yes, we had invented the wheel already by then….)
Now, I know I will get pushback on this piece of advice, but:
3. Cull your pictures. You don’t need them all.
It is true that photos help bring back memories, and that once you erase the photo, the memory is gone forever. But when you have TOO many pictures, and they aren’t organized (labeled, tagged, filed), then you can’t find them anyway.
There is a corollary rule: You can wait several years before erasing the extras.
Pictures do ripen in value over time, like fine wine.
I don’t find so many pictures of my kids, especially between ages 9 and 22. They hide from the camera. Take more! It was the same from my parents. So many pictures of my brother and me between age three and nine; so few older than that. But mostly, so many pictures of things and not quite enough of people.
Here are two pictures from August 9, 2003. Which one is more interesting now? More flowers? or the flower of my eye, my daughter, seventeen years ago?
I got a lot of pictures of sunsets. But only one of my brother and I in 1994 at a lake in Minnesota in front of a sunset.
Only one of my brother and I in June 1965– in the photo album next to my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary, so there was a date!– walking down the road, off into the sunset.