Friday Firesmith – The life and death of photo albums

There was a very sweet little old lady that lived in the house near me when I first moved here, in 2001. The first day I moved in I had been up since dawn unloading boxes and getting stuff done. I walked down to the end of the driveway to put up the mailbox, and it’s a good three tenths of a mile. I’m sweaty, dirty, aggravated, and carrying a post hole digger, and this woman, who was about 90 at the time, ambushes me, makes me go into her house for a glass of water and cookies, and proceeds to show me ten thick albums of her family history. Literally, two hours later, fighting off diabetes and a sugar buzz, I escape.

But I think I learned more about this part of the world in two hours than I have in the following nineteen years. Once upon a time, people did that, they showed you their pictures, and everyone had a ton of them. It was a ritual, a way of getting to know people, and you understood their history by what they took photos of and who was in their photos. It was something that kids grew up learning to do, learning who was in photographs, and why that person was important. I met that woman through her memories, stored in a book, while sitting next to her and eating cookies.

It took some effort, back then, to make a photo. You had to have a camera, you had to buy film, you had to hope when you pressed the button, the photo was going to be okay, because there was no way to tell until the film was developed. It might be weeks before you got the photos back, and there was the thrill of a great shot, balanced against the ever present possibility that you screwed it up somehow. Cameras, for a very long time, were not cheap and they were not easy. One hour film developing became a thing, and disposable cameras did, too. But the cell phone ended all of that, and digital photos could be taken instantly, and seen by millions of people, in seconds.

Videos were rare, and about the time good solid video cameras became easy, the cell phone got them, too. You have no idea how badly I wish that I had videos of my dogs who are no longer with me.

At the end of the day, digital storage replaced the photo album, mostly. If you want to look at someone’s photos, just go online, and there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of them. But the narrative isn’t there, the side by side sitting and sharing isn’t there, and the pointing finger, “Look, there’s Duke in the background, he was a stray that just showed up one day and Uncle Bob started feeding him so Duke just hung around. Died when he was twelve years old, that dog did.”

I miss that woman, she’s gone now, she was 95 the last time I saw her. She had a mind that was still sharp and her memory was unclouded. I can remember her telling me once that she’d leave everything she owned in her house and let it burn if it caught fire, but she’d die before leaving her photo albums.

There hasn’t been enough time yet, to figure out how this will change us, this ability to have a photo or a video, of every single second of our lives. But somehow, it’s cheapened the experience of photography, while improving the quality of photographs.

Take Care,

Mike writes regularly at his site:  The Hickory Head Hermit. Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the management of this site.

16 thoughts on “Friday Firesmith – The life and death of photo albums”

  1. I’m still old school enough to take two cell phones photos of the same thing, even though I can look at the first one to verify that it is OK. Some habits are hard to break.

  2. I have a bunch of photo albums full of pictures(with negatives), carousel trays full of slides, and reels of super 8 movies. Tons of motorcycles and hot rods, a smoking Mt St Helens from a small plane, the bottom of the Grand Canyon from a wooden boat.

    Not long ago I was thinking about digitizing everything to my computer. But I started thinking about why I took these pictures and it was mostly to show other people where I’d been, what I saw. Then I realized there’s nobody to show them to, so why bother.

    Putting them online can be a mistake, like if you post a picture of yourself holding a pay phone it might come back to haunt you forever. LoL

  3. Enjoyed the story, lost all my photos, slides, videos in the fires of 2017
    Boxes of them, going back to my childhood.
    So the tail end of the story really hit me, there was no time to grab them all
    luckily some stuff had been scanned, I grabbed my backup storage on the way out the door, so there is that

  4. My grandfather was an avid photographer, he took pictures of everything. When he was younger he developed the photos himself. He had photos from WWII and The Korean Conflict from when he was there. He brought all the film back and developed it himself.
    When he became ill, all of those pictures were stolen by people who were supposed to be friends of my grandparents, along with many other items. They had to fly back to Texas from Arizona, and before my parents could get out there to get the RV which had been their retirement home, it had been ransacked by the people who said the would keep an eye on it.
    I always wanted to see those photos now that I am an adult. I know I’d have a much better understanding of them now, also there were many he would not let me see as a child.

    • Chick, why did they steal the photographs, because they wanted them or to sell them? If to keep them they or their descendants may still have them. If you can locate the people you might be able to get them back, if descendants have the photos you might be able to talk to them into at least letting you see them, maybe even make copies or get the negatives. It’s worth asking.

      • I’d love if that were an option. There were many photos of my grandfather throughout his military career. But of course, when my parents discovered what had happened, no one knew anything about it. I would have no idea where to begin. This happened back in the 90’s I’m sure the people who helped themselves are long gone by now. I can’t imagine why they would want a bunch of photos like that, except that it was history that was not being shown at that time.

  5. My Paternal grandfather was a photographer by trade. He worked for a newspaper in Surrey, England. I have inherited quite a few of his photos, such clarity in black and white. I also have loads of my parents photos from their younger days, and with their parents, and albums full of them with me and my sister growing up.
    Myself, I travelled in the 60’s and colour slides were the thing, still have boxes, and am on the lookout for a 2nd hand slide projector; my old one broke. Then I shall go through them and put some of them onto CD, my Dad had a movie camera, most of the movies now on CD, and our kids and grandkids get a kick out of seeing them. Of course added to those, our own albums before digital of our wedding and the kids growing up.
    I’ve started getting some copied, so each of the 3 kids have them. One day, the grandkids, or great grand kids will appreciate them, and we will live on.
    As for the digital ones from past 15 years, they will go on a memory stick. but they will never replace hard copies.


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