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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