Photographs are as close as we will ever come to time travel

Verichrome Pan memories
Kodak Brownie Starmite II, Kodak Verichrome Pan, 1976

We had just moved into this house when I made this photograph. It was an exciting time — our first move as a family (and our last; my parents would remain in this house until they retired).

It’s startling now to see those overgrown bushes. The next spring Mom cut them way down and planted flowers around them. That’s how I remember that space.

That’s my brother. A tank top and patched jeans were just the kind of clothes we used to wear for play. We had nicer clothes for school, but Mom made us change into play clothes when we came home. When we wore a hole in a knee of school jeans, Mom patched it and they became play jeans. We lived in tank tops then, even into the early autumn days, which is when I made this photograph.

It’s easy to forget little details like these as one ages. I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve forgotten about that year, 1976, that I might remember if only I had made more photographs.

My allowance was a dollar then. It took me weeks to save enough for a roll of film and processing, even at 1976 prices. By the early 1980s several of our neighbors paid me to mow their lawns and shovel their driveways. I could afford more film and processing and so I have far more photographs from the 1980 than from the 1970s.

Today, pretty much every kid has a mobile phone and can photograph anything at any time. But there’s nothing physical — no negative, no print — to save. It’s just bits in the ether. My prints and negatives felt inherently valuable to nine-year-old me — they were a thing that I paid for. Of course I kept them.

I’ve loved time-travel fiction since I was a kid. I’ve read all of it that I’ve been able to find. I was captivated with the idea of a time continuum along which we could somehow move backward or forward. Today I know that now is all that exists. The past is gone and the future is yet to happen. But with a camera we can record our present, and instantly those photographs show our past. In time those photographs become artifacts of how things used to be. Those artifacts can become our memories, as our actual memories are unreliable.

Save your digital photos somehow. Download the JPEGs to your computer and have good backups, or send them into a cloud storage service. Or do the old-fashioned thing and print them. Write some notes as you go about the people and places you recorded.

Not long ago, late one night, my son texted me a selfie he’d just made of him and a longtime friend. That friend came from China to my son’s school when they were both in the fourth grade as his parents were spending a year studying at a local university. The young man spoke only a little English and most of the other kids either didn’t know how to interact with him or made fun of him. But my son, being true to himself, made it a point to make friends with the boy. Their friendship endures more than 15 years later.

“Dad, do you remember his birthday party in about 2007? Do you have any photos from it you can send me?” Of course I did, from my digital camera. Because I had them organized on my hard drive I was able to find them quickly and email them to him. Both of my sons were in them, as were this young man and another young Chinese boy. Most of the photos were of the boys trying to break open a piñata.

In that folder was a “readme” text file that I wrote at the time. It reads: “Damion and Garrett at Damion’s friend Michael’s apartment for Michael’s 10th birthday. Michael is from China. The other little boy’s name sounds like ‘shalom,’ but means ‘little dragon.’”

What a detail about the other young boy! It’s exactly the kind of detail that would have slipped entirely from my memory had I not taken thirty seconds to write that note to myself.

I guess time travel is possible after all! After a fashion, at least.

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35 responses to “Photographs are as close as we will ever come to time travel”

  1. Jane Herr Avatar
    Jane Herr

    I too remember having to change into “play clothes”. A lot of time I thought it was annoying but see now it’s value. I wanted to recommend my 2 favorite time travel books in case you have not read them. One is older: The House on the Strand by Daphne Du Maurer and the other is1963 by Stephen King. I don’t usually like King but this one is not his usual horror theme. Then of course there is Somewhere in Time, both the movie and the book.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you for the recommendations! I’d not heard of either book. I’ll add them to my to-read list.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Last year while going through my negs and transparencies, literally industrial shelves full of them, I ran across what I jokingly consider my first professional photo. Lucky for me, the date was printed in the margin, 1964. I “directed” my grandparents on my Dads side, to stand in front of his new company car, in the driveway of our first house, which we just moved to in Milwaukee from Chicago. I was ten years old. Even tho I’m 69, it didn’t seem all that long ago! It was 620 Verichrome, in a nice folding Kodak shooting a 2.25 by 2.75 neg, which was shortly to develop bellows light leaks. I was only a few years away from my paper boy career beginning, and paying 75 cents for a roll of 20 exposure 35mm Tri-X and $1.05 for a 36 exposure roll!

    I still maintain that printing and cataloging your photos is far more important than digital storage. I can guarantee for most people, upon your demise, someone might be interested enough to flip through your cataloged hard copies and decide to save them, but your computer is getting junked without anyone even turning it on and wading through your files! I don’t care what kind of instructions you’re leaving…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I was talking with my wife about this the other day, when I recognized that all of the family photos I have, my sons probably won’t care much about as they include people they never met and feel no connection with. Why would they keep them after I’m gone? I’m not there to please anymore.

      For most of us, we’re not important enough for our photos to survive past the next generation.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        We’re actually going through that with my nephews. They could care less about the family history, including their own dad and mom. My older sister, with the degrees in anthropology and archeology, has all the family history, probably as extensive as the “Finding Your Roots” show on PBS, and it’s looking pretty much like it’s all going to be junked on our generations passing! Being a professional, I DO have stuff that will be of value to the local and state historical society of local important people photographed for magazine articles, but that’s already earmarked for them.

      2. tbm3fan Avatar

        I have a ton of photos circa 1900-1930 that my mother had after her mother passed away. Only met a handful, if that, yet I have them and they are not going anywhere. No one is around today that could identify each and every person anymore. Still they are family tree history and not to be thrown away. One respects their family history and that will be instilled in my son when these pass on to him after I am gone. At that point some photos will be 145 years old. Think about that and how amazing it is.

  3. Bob Avatar

    Great post. Time travel backwards. Now that I am old I look back and it seems live a different life or a series of different lives. i am all for saving digital pics and printing the best that mark milestones.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, print the best. I have SO MANY digital photos from my kids’ childhoods. I don’t want to figure out how to store them if I print them all.

  4. Greg Anderson Avatar
    Greg Anderson

    A book entitled “Time and Again”, a time travel book by Jack Finney, entranced me when I read it for the first, second, and third time (second and third times in the following years). Also, my 35-year-old daughter is attending a Renaissance Fair in Minneapolis. She texted me requesting my photos of her taken at the local Renaissance Fair over twenty years ago. Fortunately, they are on the hard drive of my computer. She is now a Goth female warrior and a far cry from the princess she was then.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I adored that book! I read it at least three times myself.

      I used to do Renaissance Faires myself, back in my 20s.

  5. Theron Avatar

    I just wish I had all the negatives my parents threw out because “we will never use them”.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      When Mom told me she was starting to throw away negs, I said AAAAAHHHH DON’T DO THAT!

      Now I have the negs. They are all in the little sleeves from the processor — some of the sleeves have the year written on them, most don’t, and woe betide me if I want to find a single image on one of them.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        ….and good luck finding a services to make contact prints of those negative strips! I’ve been railing against photo “labs” that really aren’t professional labs for years now, because they don’t process and contact proof film! A lab that does nothing but processing and scanning, who are basically making mediocre machine scans of your entire roll when you only need a high end scan of one or two, are not considered by me or other pros to be “professional” labs. I have over 300 rolls of pocket camera film in sleeves, and I’m currently testing scanners like the Epson that have large window transparency and film scanning, just to make contact prints of those rolls!

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I guess I could start scanning them, but …. bleagh, what a dreadful project. I’d have to go frame by frame. I could do it faster with my Wolverine digitizer, but the quality wouldn’t be great. At least I could fashion digital contact sheets out of them.

  6. JR Smith Avatar

    I treasure my boxes of Kodachromes that my Dad shot as we were growing up. Many have the dates imprinted on the slide frame. I have digitized some of them. Sometimes, I think about getting a slide projector to view them the way they were intended.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re so fortunate to have those Kodachromes!

      We have my mother-in-law’s Kodachromes — some of which were shot using a Kodak Pony 828 camera. I used to own an old single-slide projector, the kind where you put the slide into a sleeve, stick the sleeve in the projector, see the image, pull the sleeve out, pull the slide out, etc. — it was amazing to see them projected large on the wall. Except for some poor storage that had them a little dinged up, they looked terrific.

  7. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    Lucky me, being an only child, I have been the recipient of two big boxes of very old photos of ancestors from both my father’s and mother’s sides of the family. Many are daguerreotype or ambrotype …. not sure which …. but many are still in the metal cases. Some clothing is very interesting … top hats, and some with both men and women in white bonnets, looking extremely stern !! Unfortunately none of them are marked in any way. I know they are my ancestors so I can’t discard them, but I don’t know who they are. Because of the genealogy work that I have done, I can only take an educated guess at identification.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wish people would always think to write on the back of prints who is in them! I’m fortunate to have a couple large prints of my mom’s mom’s family at reunions in Rochester in the 1920s, with names all written on the back.

  8. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    YES! I learned this as a child, viewing my Dad’s very exotic (to me) black and white images of his time in the Korean war. I didn’t learn it well enough, because although I have been a photographer all my life I did not take nearly enough, probably because of the cost, and I didn’t keep them in archival conditions, so some are now quite degraded, and some are completely lost. But a photograph freezes a moment and a place in time. My lens is a time machine!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I worry about how I’ve stored my negatives over the years. They’re all in regular paper envelopes. I dread a project to sleeve them all in archival sleeves.

  9. Peter Miller Avatar
    Peter Miller

    My dad worked on a barge going down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers about 1930. He put the photos in an album, which I still have. This is one thing not digitized yet, but need to. My grandchildren are growing up used to looking at iPads and iPhones — but every Christmas they receive a printed book of the pictures from the past year which is proving to be very popular as they grow older.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My sons have loved the printed books of family photos I’ve given them, as well. I’m going to do another one for them this Christmas.

  10. brandib1977 Avatar

    One of my favorite activities is digging through boxes of old photos in antique stores. Old pictures give a glimpse into the past and lots of questions about what happened to the people and how their photos ended up here. Years from now, no one will have that sense of discovery with our photos. It’s a shame.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Old family photos in antique stores always make me so sad. What happened in the family that nobody wanted the images anymore?

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        I have a collection of semi-professional looking 120 transparencies I found in a central Wisconsin junk shop in the mid-90’s. I spent about two years sending inquiry letters to those with the same last name, pre-internet, and no one could help me out. When I got back to Milwaukee in 2018, I unearthed these again and tried an internet search. I found one reference to him at the Wisconsin Historical Society. I contacted them, and they just had a few pictures, no info? My brothers job gave him access to the older un-digitized obit sections of the local papers, and we finally found a lead! Talk about your sad stories! He was an only child of a couple, and died young. He was a young budding professional photographer, was schooled at one of the Midwest’s premier art schools, belonged to a few state photographic societies, and was the sole photographer for a book on Latin America. He spent his last few years of his young life working for a photographic repair business, as well as booking freelance and portrait photography assignments. His parents died long after him, with no additional children and no heirs. Sad, sad story, a complete erasure of a limb of a family tree. I plan to eventually scan in what I’ve got, do a small direct to press book, and then it all goes to the state historical society…

      2. brandib1977 Avatar

        I always wonder that too. I buy them and call them pictures of “The Family.”

  11. Dave Powell Avatar

    Hi My Friend,

    Thanks for this fascinating read! I too have long been interested in time travel… and even more so after studying quantum physics. I think H.G. Wells did future scientists a grave disservice when– in “The Time Machine”– he (1) subtly implied that an actual machine would be necessary, and (2) that time is like a river channel that one can navigate both forward and back.

    One still sees this erroneous thinking in both science and literature:

    Even when scientists admit that time travel may be theoretically possible, you’ll still hear someone say that one “couldn’t go back farther than the date their time machine was first turned on.” But what if Wells’ subtle implication is wrong… and a machine isn’t needed?
    And one of the characters in William Kent Krueger’s very popular novel “This Tender Land” has the ability– without a machine– to see future events and move forward in time to possibly alter them. (She’s not always successful.) This too reflects Wells’ early idea that both forward and back directions can be traversed and even revisited.

    The potential truth may be stranger still. And it’s only now being explored in novels like Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” and Richard Bach’s “One.” But returning to the “machine” issue, have you seen the 1946 sc-fi anthology titled “Adventures in Time & Space”? Perhaps THE best such anthology ever published, it actually included two non-fiction articles:

    One, by the American rocket pioneer Willy Ley, suggested that the German V-2 rockets that so recently pounded England might someday help mankind reach the moon. Prescient!
    And the other– “Time Travel Happens!” by A. M. Phillips– describes a now-well-known report of “involuntary time travel” by two Oxford educators in early 1900’s Versailles. They basically just “walked” back to the year 1789, and were able to trace what they saw to that date using old Versailles maps and other archival documents.

    For about a half-century, I considered it just a fascinating story. But I never thought that something similar might happen to me. It did two years ago, as Kate and I drove familiar roads from Peterborough, New Hampshire back to our home in Massachusetts. The instant we entered Mass., our well-worn route looked disturbingly different. Kate (who has a steel-trap memory for routes and landmarks) became totally lost. I too didn’t recognize a darned thing.

    We passed through a town that had seemingly regressed back to its 1800s industrial days. A favorite antiques shop (called “The Cooperage” in our time) had reverted… with barrel staves and hoops piled around its yard instead of lawn furniture and kids bicycles. Along the way, we saw no other cars, but after the scenery around us suddenly flipped back to normal, the ever-present autos returned.

    A week later, we decided to retrace the route, but nothing strange occurred. We debated whether we too had traveled involuntarily back in an ordinary Toyota Corolla. But there was one potential piece of evidence: When we finally reached home, my digital watch had lost precisely an hour.

    Can time travel happen that easily? Who knows.

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      You can spend a deeply focused afternoon on YouTube reading all about these incidents, just go to YouTube and scan for Time Slip. Fans of The Why Files and Joe Scott will find plenty of stories there as well.

      1. Dave Powell Avatar

        Thanks for the info Andy! Only after we cut cable TV and switched to Roku, did I discover “Why Files.” It’s an amazing (and amusing) series. I sometimes think he’s heading down a rabbit hole when he suddenly switches to full-journalist mode and hits one with sometimes startling facts. Totally enjoyable (as is Hecklefish Moriarity… who has his OWN YouTube channel). I will definitely check out Joe Scott too.

        It’s great being able to watch YouTube vids on our flat-screen TV. Any streaming platform with a YouTube channel should also allow that. And voice-searching for topics like “Time Slip” on TV is seriously nice. (That search string will be tonight’s entertainment!)

  12. NigelH Avatar

    Wow JIm that is incredible (to me) that you had the foresight to make that note to yourself for you to read many tears later; I wish I had the capability in me to make those kinds of things.
    I know you already have many time travel reading recommendations so I’ll hold off sharing one short story I read that had a different take on the subject

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t always do it, but when I do, I’m usually glad later.

  13. Kodachromeguy Avatar

    Photographs ARE a time machine. After my mom died, my sister retrieved a fine album. In it was an approx. 1905 photo of my grandfather, his brother, Tony, and a third child. Wait, who was this child? None of us ever heard him mention another sibling, cousin, or other relative. There was no text on the back of the print. The family lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Another time machine mystery to pursue.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I just got all of the photographs my Uncle Jack had. He had no children to pass them down to. Among them was an album of photographs of my grandfather as a child, with handwritten notes on each image from one of his parents! Talk about a trip back in time. Grandpa was born in 1916.

  14. J P Avatar

    Few things can suck me down a rabbit hole like looking at old photos of places and people who are no longer there. Memory does the same thing, but not nearly so clearly after a long, long time.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Photos do it so well.

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