Essay, Photography

The lifespan of a family photograph

It always makes me very sad to find old family photographs for sale in an antique store or at a flea market. I want to rescue them all. Space is tight in our home, so I refrain. I’m not sure what I’d do with them anyway. But it is a shame that those family memories lost their connection with the family that made them.

Me and my brother on Grandpa’s lawn tractor, 1971

When I was a kid, mom made all of our family photographs. She had a big 126 camera with a built-in battery-powered flash (quite unusual in the early 1970s). I think she bought it with green stamps! She used it through the late 1980s.

I’ve never seen most of those photographs, except for an album she made and gave me of my preschool years. She took the pictures, had the film developed and printed, put the prints in boxes, stored the boxes in the closet, and that was that. I asked about them a couple years ago and she said she had been working through them to get rid of duplicates and bad photographs. She also said that she was throwing away the negatives as she went. Ack! I asked her to cut that out, as I want to be able to scan those negatives someday.

My sons on my lawn tractor, 2001

But what of those images after my brother I are gone? Will my children care? They won’t even know most of the people in those photographs — cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents they’ve never met. One day I will show them those photographs, tell them my memories of the days they record, tell them about the family members in them. I hope they will appreciate those stories, and through them gain some feeling of connection to the family.

It’s the same for me with the few photographs my mother has of her family. I sometimes recognize my grandparents in them as young adults. A few other people in those photographs lived into my early childhood, and I’m told I met them, but I don’t remember them. The people in Mom’s family photographs are strangers to me. Mom knew them and loved them, and has sometimes told me her stories of them. I’m glad to know those stories, and I can try to remember those memories to share them with my children. But will they feel any connection to these distant ancestors who lived in another place and time? A tenuous connection at best, I feel certain. So, what of those photographs after my mother is gone?

But then there are moments like this. Not long ago my cousin Barbara shared a photograph of my great grandfather, John Eugene Grey, when he was a young man. I never knew him, my father said little about him, and I’ve seen few photographs of him. But when I saw this one, I was struck by how much my son Damion resembles him. That’s John Eugene on the left, and Damion on the right. Damion was 19 in his photograph, and I’d guess John Eugene was within a year or two of that age in his photograph.

Remarkable, isn’t it? Finding something like this is why it’s valuable to keep family photographs. It reminds us of where we came from, and gives us a full sense of our families through the generations.

But how do you keep generation after generation of family images — hundreds, perhaps thousands of them? In enough generations they’d snowball into a genuine storage problem.

I think they key is editing. Mom and I can sort through our family’s photos and keep a small but carefully chosen subset of them — ones that best show family memories and family members. We should write on each photograph what it depicts, where it was taken, and who’s in it and how they are related to us. This should deliver a manageable number of photographs for following generations to keep, and hopefully appreciate.

It will also be a big project, the kind that many families talk about but never get to. It’s why so many family photographs show up in flea markets and antique stores.

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40 thoughts on “The lifespan of a family photograph

  1. You knew this post was coming up when we were talking about old photographs yesterday. I’m disappointed you didn’t give me “previews of coming attractions.” Not really, but I thought it was ironic. And what was the name of the film scanner you mentioned?

    • I did know, but I didn’t remember that it was today! Also, frequently when I’ve written a post it’s on my mind and if conversations happen to touch on things I wrote in the post, I speak of those ideas — but almost never then mention that this is in an upcoming post!

      The scanner I mentioned was the Kodak Scanza.

      https://www.amazon.com/KODAK-SCANZA-Digital-Slide-Scanner/dp/B00O2BU8PK

      I have an older but similar scanner and while it doesn’t do pro-quality work it is just fine for digitizing family snapshots.

  2. All true. I am fortunate that family photos were readily available when I was a kid. My mother kept hers neatly in albums while my grandmas were in a department store gift box. I used to go through both collections regularly. The photos added a visual element which helped the stories I would hear about people I had never met come alive. Photos from my Father’s family were rarely seen and I never made a connection with those ancestors.

    • You’re fortunate to have gotten to review your mother’s family photos so often! Many of my ancestors’ photos were on the wall in my parents’ bedroom, and sometimes Mom would tell me who was in them, but the names meant little to me.

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Wow, we feel exactly the same about the sadness associated with finding old family photos discarded, or worse, thrown away. Unfortunately you can’t save them all.

    I mentioned on here a few days ago about a friend who was put into an assisted living situation by her son, who moved her to Zionsville from Texas, and then her house was leveled. I didn’t see it happening until a few days after (didn’t even know it was going to happen), and walked by when there were dumpsters out in front. I spied an old family photo of her husband on the ground, which I picked up and saved; and one of the construction guys said: “…you should have been here yesterday, we trashed all kinds of family vintage photos right into the dumpster; the son didn’t want them! Gone now, this is all that’s left…”! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe an actual family member would do that to their history! I have her husbands vintage picture on my desk here right in front of me…

    My Mom was the constant photographer, and like yours, eventually ending up with a great high-end Instamatic 126. The one thing wrong with that format, was that the actual film plane in the cartridge was “questionable”, and never rendered sharp photos; the one fatal flaw. Even Kodak admits not fixing the cartridge was a big mistake. Her earlier photos on a 620 camera were far shaper, she should have kept it up.

    When my Mom passed in 2011, we knew where the big case of photos were. My sisters took most everything, being the artist and the archeologist/anthropologist, but after a while, I found some left over vintage stuff of my Dad recovering from being shot up in the South Pacific, while at Great Lakes; and my Mom with her first husband, living in Hawaii. My older sister usually has the family record stuff, BUT, none of us but my brother, have kids; and they couldn’t be less interested in thinking about taking this stuff on. Even my personal records and photos: when I’m gone, everything I don’t send to the Wisconsin Historical Society before hand (and they’ll take it, too), will be trashed! I’m culling out the “historically important” stuff (assignments I did for city magazines, local music stuff, etc.) now and getting it ready to ship to the Society the minute I feel “iffy”.

    I used to look at every pile of unwanted family photos as the “end of a family” i.e. no one left to take it, but I’ve had enough discussions with my nephews to know, that many times, it’s that you get to a generation that just doesn’t care, and couldn’t be bothered. SAD.

    • We just don’t have the same connection to the generations as we used to. And we’re so mobile as a people. I don’t live in my hometown. Nor does any of my family anymore. We’ve all spread out. If we all lived near each other and kept it that way for generations we’d feel that connection, I’m sure.

      The story of the house and the photos breaks my heart.

  4. I have been working through scanning my mom’s negatives (mostly from my childhood) as I have been working from home. It’s been some of the same experience. Sometimes I come across whole rolls of film full of people and places I don’t know or recognize. So I ask her. I edit as I go, removing files of underexposed, poorly framed or mistakes.

  5. Eileen Yovanoff says:

    Your writing rings a chord with me. My husband and I are just starting to try to figure out what to do with our multitude of albums. Are you scanning all your photos? Or are you keeping boxes of them? We had all our albums in our basement and it seem wrong to just let them stay there. Our kids only look at them when we pull out photos and send the ones that remind us of our grandchildren. I’m trying to be ruthless about discarding the poor shots I kept prior to digital cameras. And now trying to decide how to sort them. By year, decade, or content?
    Last year, pre pandemic, my sister and I went through thousands of slides from our parents. Basically we didn’t save the ones that had people we didn’t recognize. My parents loved to travel. There were a lot of fuzzy photos in those piles.My father’s photographic skills improved as he got better cameras. We had the slides digitalized and can now share with family. Who knows if they will look at them.
    I’m going to look at the scanner you mention above.

    • I started making my own photos in 1976 when I was 9, and I have all the negatives. In 2014 when I was laid up after a surgery I used a simple negative digitizing device to create digital images out of all of those negatives. They’re on my hard drive here. I sort them by year and that’s it. I didn’t take so many photos that it’s hard to figure out from the context about when I made them in each year.

      At some point I need to start working with my mom on the photos she made of our family, same thing as you, keeping the good ones and letting the fuzzy ones go.

  6. Andy Umbo says:

    You know, I mentioned above that my sisters got most of the best vintage photos in our family, but I failed to mention both actually published “direct-to-press” books of some of the best and sent them to the rest of us! My older sister (the archeologist/anthropologist) published two book on Shutterfly, one about my parents since the beginning of their lives, through having us; and one of our entire family tree, including charts, and all vintage old prints of family members, with some explanation of all. My younger sister (the artist), published a nice square book on MilkBooks, of our last home, and all the quirky stuff we remembered on the walls and pictures of my parents last years, Mom’s cookbooks with all the hand written recipes scanned in, etc. All the books were hard covers and a delight to get!

    Anyone wondering what to do with the family photos, might consider this format for the extended relatives! A single book with “curated” images might be something treasured rather than a large swath of random photos!

    • Great suggestion! I did something like that for my kids. They each have two photo books from me, printed by Blurb.com: one of good photos from their childhoods, and one of memories from the house we shared before I remarried and moved to Zionsville. My older son told me just recently how much he treasures those books.

  7. tbm3fan says:

    My father was not a picture taker. My mother didn’t get her Nikon F till the 80s and it was for documenting California native plants. I got my first camera when six and so took some photos after that. There are some when younger, I have them but don’t know who took them. Maybe my one grandfather who I recall having a camera. My mother’s side of the family has photos going back to the late 1800s in New York City and Ireland. I now have them. Some people are noted on the back and some aren’t but i can place most. Of course most are way past my son who never met any of them.

    I’ll save them without a thought. I spend more time thinking about how to deal with burials. One group, mother’s parents and uncles, is in Orlando Florida. Never been there. My father’s parents in Fremont California but I never knew which cemetery. My father is in the National Cemetery in Dixon where none of us can go. My sister died young and suddenly, last year, so she is in an urn at her house with her son. Mom is 88 years old. I’m thinking of asking my nephew if I could put his mother, my sister, with her/my mother in a location where I could end up one day so at least the three of us are together and not spread out. If everyone had stayed in New York City that is how it would have been done.

    • That’s certainly the challenge of a family spreading out across the country. I know it’s part of what’s enabled our economy in the 20th century, but at the same time it feels like a loss as families splinter and scatter.

  8. Nancy Stewart says:

    Both of my parents had big boxes of ancestors pictures that I found up in the attic of the farm after they passed away. Many of them go all the way back to the beginning of photography … some of them are the metal ones in metal cases. Some of them … men and women that seem to be wearing some type of Quaker style caps. Nothing written on them anywhere … ?? Some photos from the Civil War period, some with W.W.1 uniforms. Oh, how I wish I would have been able to ask so many questions about those people in the old pictures while there was still someone alive that might have still had distant memories of them. But the grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles are all gone … no one to ask anymore. I am familiar with pictures of a few of my great grandparents and great aunts and uncles that I had seen before. Many years ago I became interested in genealogy and that is my hobby now. I have found some very interesting information in going back through family history. I have been able to, with some probability, identify some of the people in the old pictures. And every now and then I will run across an ancient old face peering back at me and I will without a doubt, see my dad looking back at me. The resemblance some times is striking. Very interesting to me, as I have always liked studying history … but maybe those coming after me will have no interest … who knows ??

    • That’s a shame, Nancy, that those photos had no documentation, and there’s nobody to ask anymore. But good on you for digging through your family tree and being able to identify the people in some of those images!

      Isn’t it something to see the physical patterns in the family, how we look like various ancestors?

  9. A couple of decades back, my wife was having a spring-clean and pulled out our box of photos. While she wouldn’t get rid of the photos, she wondered about the space being taken up by the negatives, and we decided together that we probably didn’t need them. I had no huge interest in photography at the time and the idea that the negatives were the “master copies” of our prints didn’t really cross my mind, so we dumped them.

    Facepalm…

    • Isn’t it incredible? When Barbara posted that image in our family group on Facebook, I posted that image of Damion in response and everyone in the family was blown away.

  10. I am fortunate because back in the day, my Dad shot mostly all Kodachromes with his trusty Retina IIc. Interesting too that he shot everything Sunny 16 or by following one of those little instruction sheets that Kodak used to include with every roll of film. After the slides came back from the lab, he would organize them in metal Argus slide trays and on rainy days, he would set up the projector and film and we’d go through them all, rolling with laughter over the ones inserted upside down. After we all moved away, the slide shows stopped and the Argus trays ended up in a dark closet. 40 plus years later, my folks sent me all those slides and because they were carefully stored, they all looked as good as the day they were processed. I’ve scanned most of them. Good memories.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Even as late as the early 90’s, when I was in my late 30’s, my pals were still bringing Kodak trays to parties with a bunch of slides, we all took slides, even the guys that were in video and film production took slides for show! In our 20’s, you couldn’t go to a party without bringing a tray of slides, it was a “thing”. I miss those days and those parties! What do people do now, pass around their cell phones and tell you to look at the screen? My buddy Jeff, after he moved to Washington D.C., even mounted a professional projection screen on the ceiling on one end of his front room, and for parties, just pulled it down!

  11. kennethwajda says:

    I wish we could come up with a good plan for how families could easily keep a record of who is in these old snapshots, they’re so historically important.

    • Seems straightforward enough to write names on the back of the print. And all of this requires effort. I’m is guilty of not expanding that effort as the next person – my family photos are mostly digital, and they’re all just in folders on my hard drive with no documentation.

    • Great call. The Blurb books are a pretty good quality, and they store so neatly. I’ve made a couple books for my sons of photographs from their childhoods and they seem to really appreciate them.

  12. It’s funny that you should write about this because I have something simmering in my mind on this very topic. I’m glad you’re working on this for your own family- not everyone is so thoughtful.

  13. It’s interesting that you’ve written this at a time when I’m pondering the topic while going through boxes of negatives. My mom has four sisters and a brother. My dad was one of thirteen. I have two younger brothers. Who gets to keep generation after generation of family images?

  14. I recently received the box with our family photos from when I was little. I only have pictures of me until I was maybe three years old. May father lost interest in photography at this time and the next few pictures of me were done with my own frist camera at around 16. I never cared but seeing this gap now makes me sad that my parents did not see much value and making visual memories of their only child.

    I probably take too many pictures of my daughter which as an old man I can later show full of glee to all potential husbands ;-)

    My wife’s family took hundreds of pictures and we scanned them all but never really look at them. Those images are her parents memories and not really hers. We look at our pictures more often though.

    • What a shame that more of your childhood was not recorded. I’m sorry.

      Interesting comment that your wife’s parents’ photos are their memories and not hers. I wonder what I’ll find when I see my mom’s photos — will they record any memories I have?

  15. It kills me that my parents always threw out their negatives. All I have left are 4×6 prints; I remember when my mom went through a scrapbooking phase I made sure to explicitly tell her to MAKE COPIES of the originals and use THOSE in the scrapbook. Some people just don’t care or want to make the effort but thankfully all the prints we had are still there (as far as I know). My aunt has all my grandpa’s slides so thank God for that, I had mentioned to her about digitizing them but I don’t know if it ever happened; I do remember telling her not to throw them away, not that she would, she’s an historian.

    I remember from a lecture at school my instructor talking about a photo project where anyone could mail old prints to this guy and he was using them for a photo archive project and would take absolutely anything no questions asked, much better than just throwing them away. I wish I still knew how to find the guy, haven’t had much luck just googling so far…

    • I used to keep my prints in those “magnetic” albums with the sticky stuff and the plastic sheets. I regret it. That sticky stuff is permanently stuck to the back of every print. I now keep the prints in archival boxes.

      I digitized all my old negs (childhood through early 20s) about six years ago, so I could theoretically have new prints made of everything if I needed to.

  16. Edward says:

    Divide all pictures into albums for your children and other extended family members and pass them down to nephews and nieces. I too save vintage photos. When they are displayed on my walls, I feel they have been resurrected and brought back to the living. In joyed this post very much.Thank you, Jim.

  17. Ah yes, as you know I have been scanning many of my Dad’s images – he made hundreds of colour slides between his last year serving in Korea in 1952 until he bought a digital camera in the mid 2000’s, and promptly lost all interest in photography. I am being quite selective in what I am scanning – and I don’t know if the original slides will be of interest to anyone after I am gone, but without this record there would already be very little to help us remember the history of our family and the times they lived in. One or two of his images are quite historically significant now, moments in time frozen forever.

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