The Old Family Photos Project: Lessons in creating family photos that people want to keep
As a consequence of scanning thousands of slides, I learned quite a bit about taking photos that capture a family’s life. Here’s a personal memoir, with a few lessons in taking memorable snapshots.
My father was an avid amateur photographer. He loved to take pictures, he invested in expensive cameras, and I’ve plenty of vacation memories where he had one of those cameras in hand.
But organizing the slides afterwards? Labeling them? No way. Pop threw the boxes of slides in big piles and said, “I’ll sort them after I retire.” And, in preparation for his retirement, he put all those slides into five huge boxes — the kind you’d use to ship vinyl records.
Whereupon, three days after my father formally retired in 1988, he died in his sleep.
The slides stayed with my mother. When she moved into assisted living, the boxes went into my sister’s garage. After mom died, three years ago, they came to me. The result was a huge project of scanning family slides — between 8,000 and 10,000 of them.
The primary goal was to save the photos before the media deteriorated beyond hope. It was too late in some cases. I remember Pop telling me how much cheaper Ektachrome was (compared to Kodachrome), but many of those images were as ghost-like as a half-remembered dream. Memories fade even faster. Is that a photo of my second cousin Charlotte? I’ve no idea.
For those who want practical lessons, herein you will find two categories:
- How to go about a family photo archive project (or at least how I did it) and
- Practical suggestions for taking photos that your family will treasure long after you’re gone.
This was an oddly spiritual process. We take pictures of the moments we think are valuable or important. So, in the photos he took, I saw my father’s dreams, the things he thought were beautiful, his moments of pride. And in so doing, I gained more understanding of who my parents were. …but I’ll leave that essay to another time.
Logistics and project scope
I have spoken with several people who have similar family photo archives, so let me begin by describing I went about the project.
Before I began, I had an inexpensive Wolverine slide scanner but I knew a manual unit would not cut it. I bought a heavy-duty slide scanner to help me process the images. It’s a Canon CanoScan 9000F. I like it, in case you’re shopping for an affordable unit; in particular, I do not loathe the built-in software, which sets it apart from other scanners I’ve used.
The project, which took me about a year, became a background process. I could scan a box of slides while I was reading my daily morning e-mail, then clean up and share the images during moments of down-time (such as waiting for poky websites to load site statistics). Over a weekend I usually could get through five or six boxes of slides.
Scanning a box of slides had several steps, each of which became a kind of emotional triage:
- I held up a slide (in front of a desk lamp) to identify it generally and decide if it was worth scanning. In other words: Do I care about this at all? Something out-of-focus easily could be thrown away. A picture of people I didn’t care about (e.g. someone my folks met on a bus tour and never spoke with again) could be dumped, too. It soon became obvious that I didn’t need to scan tourist photos; there are just-so-many pictures you need to see of the Tower of London (which looks the same today as it did in 1972 when my parents visited) or random sunsets over random mountains.
- If the slide looked interesting, I did a fast preview scan. For instance, if my father took three pictures “just to be sure” I could choose the best image; I could throw out the ones where my brother had his eyes closed. And I could eliminate the pictures that were inherently uninteresting, by which I mean it brought me no sense of nostalgia.
- By the time I scanned an image, I was pretty committed to keeping it and sharing it with my siblings. Sometimes, if an image was entertaining or meaningful, I’d share it among my friends on Facebook.
From a box of 24–36 slides, I usually shared about 8 with my brother and sisters. By the end of the project, I’d shared 2,800 images with my siblings, and a few hundred on Facebook.
I used iPhoto to clean up the images and sort them into a dedicated folder. While tools like PhotoShop certainly could do a better job (and were trotted out for a few special images), 98% were treated with iPhoto’s crop, straighten, and the “Enhance” button. I also added dates and locations to the images’ metadata.
To share the images with my family, I uploaded photos to Flickr. Other photo sharing sites have far better user interfaces, but Flickr has two advantages: I can limit sharing to a set of people marked as friends-and-family, and viewers can comment on the images. Plus you can search images, if you’re smart enough to add tags as you go. (Do.)
Towards the end I also created private Facebook groups, which let me share with cousins as well as siblings, though its search capabilities are poor. It’s been useful for sharing those videos, though, and for encouraging conversations among my relatives.
For general sharing online, I created an Old Family Photos album on Facebook. iPhoto makes it easy to share to an album (though, alas, not to a private group). I’ve been astonished by how many of my family’s history touches a chord. Don’t be shy; but do keep your family’s privacy sensitivities in mind when you share.
A lifetime in five boxes
The earliest roll of slides was from my parents’ engagement party circa 1941, followed by their honeymoon snapshots in 1942. Thousands of slides record their lives all the way through the 1980s, with a Family Circle gathering held only two months before my father’s death.
Inside the big boxes were two shoeboxes with a hundred 8mm video movies, which went back to the 1920s but mainly record 1950s camping trips. (iMemories did a very good job at digitizing those.)
Most images are from family vacations and special occasions, rather than “daily life.” Earlier vacations (1950s and 1960s) are mostly camping trips; later pictures are from trips to Europe, particularly when money eased up after “the kids left home.”
But more is visible than the campsites and Boy Scout trips. I saw a young couple’s struggles to cope with three young children (I was an afterthought); I watched their idealism diminish and exhaustion set in.
Take pictures of interactions, and other lessons
I threw away many thousands of pictures. Some of them undoubtedly had meaning to my parents, but nobody alive cares about those photos. Yet I also came across special moments — and none of us need to have “been there” to appreciate them.
In reviewing thousands of slides, I learned quite a bit about taking photos that capture a family’s life. Perhaps these lessons can help you, too, in considering which images to snap — on vacation or in daily life.
Those “title slides” are meaningful after all. I remember rolling my eyes whenever my father would station me in front of a road sign or National Park entrance. Such pictures seemed really lame.
As I reviewed the pictures, though, the title slides were priceless. In all those years, my parents went to dozens of beaches, gardens, and campsites in random mountain ranges. Other than the date on the slide (“Sep 83”) I have no way to identify which one it is. (Occasionally, there’s a scribbled note, like, “Explorer Trip” or “London.” Um, thanks, Pop.)
So I was always glad when I found a photo of us kids standing next to a “Mystic Seaport” sign or “Underground tours” (always looking put-upon and sullen, because we were told to “Stand up straight! And smile — it might turn out good!”).
Labels matter. Even a few words helped me know when-and-where something happened: “1955 Nova Scotia” or my grandfather’s name. One of the saddest experiences was looking at a family-gathering photo from the 50s with several people in it, and having no idea who’s in it. (Is that my great-aunt? Maybe my sister remembers? …and too often she didn’t.) If you inherit the photos, take the time to identify the people in them. Even if it’s obvious to you that the picture is of cousin Janet who died in 1943, you can’t assume that the next viewer will know.
Lesson: Do take pictures that give the viewer a clue of where you are, and with whom.
Kodak picture spots aren’t memorable. Destination pictures surely remind the travelers of their experience. I’m sure that that picture of the beach in Portugal would have encouraged my father to say, “Thelma, remember that night?” That’s fine, for the people who participated. I’ve taken thousands of such photos myself.
But if I wasn’t there, the image brings me no nostalgia.
The worst of these pictures are the touristy photos. My father took plenty of pictures of the Eiffel Tower on their trip in the 70s. But the tower doesn’t look any different today, so I didn’t bother to scan those photos. In fact, I dumped boxes without even looking at the contents, because there’s nothing in that experience that speaks to anyone but the participants.
Lesson: It’s fine to take pictures that capture a moment for those who were present. But if anyone could have taken that photo, don’t expect anyone to care.
People pictures matter the most. Especially the non-staged ones. The formal pictures of special occasions, where we kids are lined up like we’re in front of a firing squad, are not the ones that bind us.
The best family photos are the ones where we’re clowning around and laughing, or where we’re doing something together, or a moment captured without the subject realizing it. The most precious are those where the family is putting up a pup tent, or using the water pump, or packing the car for a trip.
In general, try to capture your family when they are actively doing something, ideally an entire process. Let it be a photo essay: “Mom making Thanksgiving dinner” or “Daddy taking the kids to the petting zoo.” Don’t choose only the “reveal” moments such as Mom presenting the turkey to the table; include a picture of her hurriedly putting on lipstick before Grandpa arrives, or the kids conked out, asleep in the back seat, on the car trip home.
A few exceptions: Nobody looks attractive or interesting while he’s swimming. Few people look great sitting on a towel on the beach, wearing a bathing cap. Also don’t take pictures of people eating dinner, even at a fancy dinner. And while it’s no longer relevant, it was never a good idea to photograph exhausted travelers arriving at an airport gate.
Include the photographer. I have few pictures of my father, because he was always the guy behind the camera. When he did ask someone to take a picture it was always posed, such as “Mom and Pop standing in front of the Grand Canyon.”
Lesson: Photos that capture you “being there” — which means most selfies — rarely have meaning. Doing matters far more.
Take photos of daily life. I’m stunned by the pictures my father didn’t take. There isn’t a single photo that represents what my parents did for a living. They weren’t the type to attend company picnics, fine. But I found nothing indicating “take your daughter to work” or “Mom typing up a report” or “the building I worked in” or “the woman Mom commuted to work with for 10 years.” That would be more understandable if my parents disliked their jobs, but both of them were passionate about their careers.
Take photos of people at rest. Even though I spent much of my childhood writing letters, there is only one photo of me with a pen in my hand — and that was taken by a friend at summer camp. Yet my friends and family all recall me with a book or pen within reach. My father never captured that essential part of who I was.
Some of the absences may reflect their superstitions. There are zero photos of any woman who is visibly pregnant. Maybe that was considered bad luck; I don’t know.
Lesson: Don’t limit photo-taking to special occasions.
Take at least a short class in photography basics. Or read a basic book on the topic. As much as my father loved photography, he never got any kind of formal training. I spend a lot of editing time cropping images to take advantage of the simplest rule-of-thirds, for instance.
Even if you aren’t devoted to photography that much: Crop photos closely. My father took a lot of photos of “Mom in front of a pretty vista” but in the long run I care more about Mom’s expression than the expanse of mountains in the background. Thanks to iPhoto I can zoom in, but a lot of detail is lost.
Lesson: Take the best quality photos you can. Your grandchildren will appreciate it.
Ultimately, we all take family photos to help ourselves remember the moments we want to recall forever. Nothing suggests that those memories must last beyond our own lifetimes. But if you want your children’s children to recall who you are-and-were, these tips might help you achieve that.