A Future Without Photos

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In my parent's house are boxes of family photos stored in closets, cupboards, and desks. The pictures are loose, in albums, and some still in the sleeves they came back from the photomat in. From time to time when I still lived at home I'd pull the boxes out and sort through all the memories of my childhood, and from the years before I was born: photos of my parent's when they were dating, their childhoods, their parents and their childhoods. A visual family history. Some might call this clutter - but I prefer to think of these boxes as tangible memories.

For the past several months my mother has been calling me at least once a week to get my opinion on which digital camera she should buy. You see, up until a few days ago she never owned one. My mother has stuck to film more steadfastly than I have. But with children living in far off cities, and I'm sure other societal pressures (all her friends have one), she's been wanting to go digital - you know, for emailing and such. Which I totally understand - and it's something I do myself. (Let me just state now that I think digital can be a great tool to keep in touch, etc) Anyway, now that her hot pink Sony Cybershot has arrived I fear that the era of the handheld photo may have just come to an end in my parent's house. With glee my mother announced all the exciting aspects of her new camera on the phone the other day - the screen size, it's eye catching color, and the little travel pouch she bought for it. I've been told it's very cute - and it matches the camera. She's also delighted that it can fit in her purse.

Now, while I think digital and point and shoots have their place (Yes, I own one), even social media to a certain extent, this recent event has me wondering about all those boxes of pictures I used to love to riffle through on the living room floor. What's more, it causes me to remember the times I spent looking at pictures with people I loved. One frequent event that comes to mind was when my grandmother and I used to look through her photo albums from when she was young. Those experiences were more than just picture viewing - they were memories themselves. Us sitting at the kitchen table together, my grandmother going through each square photo taken by her Brownie, telling me the story behind each picture, each person, while we looked through the albums she so loving put together as a young woman. I'm not so sure looking at photos on a laptop or a cellphone could ever quite recreate that, no matter how well designed a website might be.

So, I've been pondering what will happen to our collective future memories - I mean, if let's say, people forget to back up their images and don't print them out? What's more - what will happen to the photo labs? I suppose that's a story for another time, though.

I know everyone intends to print out those digital photos, and sometimes people even buy that cute little photo printer to go with their new camera, but often times the digital files never leave the hard drive. Years may go by and before you know it.... poof! Family vacations, weddings, and countless birthday parties are all sucked up into the ether. Lost, never to be found again because either a computer died and the photos were never backed up, or formats and/or media changed and you never switched. Or, you just plain forgot where you put the files. Tragedy.

Perhaps I'm not as afraid of this probable future as I am saddened by it. Not that I don't appreciate an email of photos from my mother - and not that I don't send them myself - but, there is something to be said for a picture you can hold in your hand. And there's something to be said for picking up the pack of 24 glossy prints from the drug store photo counter. How many times have you stood right at the counter looking through the prints, or in your car in the parking lot - smiling and laughing or crying? It's a real experience - a tangible one. An act that's been played out over and over again - but these days less and less. There's anticipation and reward, and a few moments where you're unplugged from technology - simply enjoying what the photos hold. You quite literally have your life in your hands. And if you're lucky enough, you might even get to share those moments with someone you love.

All I have to say in closing is this: Mom, while I love the emails, please don't forget to make prints.

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I must admit, I very rarely get prints made. If I have a shot I want to display and frame, then yes, I'll print obviously. But for normal snapshots from family gatherings and outings with friends, everything is done through Facebook.

The exception is my grandparents who, bless them, don't have a computer. I got prints made from Christmas Eve this year and they were very happy to have photos to handle. The are using a digital camera now, but they have one of the little 4 x 6 home printers with a memory card slot, allowing them to make their own prints sans computer.

I do also enjoy discovering old envelopes of photos when I venture home.

Jim Fisher wrote:

I do also enjoy discovering old envelopes of photos when I venture home.

Do you ever look for photos that aren't from your family - at thrift stores or antique shops? I have a small collection of them. Sometimes I give them as gifts - especially old photographs printed on cards.

Megan Iverson wrote:
 

Do you ever look for photos that aren't from your family - at thrift stores or antique shops? I have a small collection of them. Sometimes I give them as gifts - especially old photographs printed on cards.

I don't know if I've ever seen photos for sale at a thrift store, but I did buy a used 35mm disposable at a thrift store in college. Nothing came out on the roll, sadly. I need to spend more time at the Salvation Army shop.

Yes, we are in danger of losing the ability to pass on our generational history, both collective and individual.
 
I too remember sitting at the table hearing for the umpteenth time about whom "so and so" was, and where "such and such" happened. That human contact and communication has been replaced by a solitary quick look on a computer screen with the image subsequently consigned to the backup medium du jour.
 
Hopefully, JPEG or RAW will still remain as valid formats for the foreseeable future, but I think you are commenting on the passing of the act of actual person to person sharing of tangible memories.

Great post that rings true. I too grew up with snapshots, and my Uncle Jerry was the first on the block to buy a Polaroid camera that made wonderful prints with edges that looked like they were cut with pinking shears. I still have many of these prints, and the camera now sits alongside my Chatautauqua Seneca Uno and a host of other remnants of the photographic past.

I also often wonder about the generation currently coming of age that will most likely not have the comfort of a photo album filled with moments of time that memories aside, have no other form to them. In a time where seemingly every device we own takes pictures, few of these images ever make it to print form, and those that do become prints are often produced on $79 printers using dye-based ink and printed on no-name paper stock, the results of which seldom survive a few months on the refrigerator door.

So while I also embrace and appreciate the benefits of digital imaging, I also recognise what's been lost in the shuffle of progress.

George Aranoff wrote:

Yes, we are in danger of losing the ability to pass on our generational history, both collective and individual.
 
I too remember sitting at the table hearing for the umpteenth time about whom "so and so" was, and where "such and such" happened. That human contact and communication has been replaced by a solitary quick look on a computer screen with the image subsequently consigned to the backup medium du jour.
 
Hopefully, JPEG or RAW will still remain as valid formats for the foreseeable future, but I think you are commenting on the passing of the act of actual person to person sharing of tangible memories.

Allan Weitz wrote:

Great post that rings true. I too grew up with snapshots, and my Uncle Jerry was the first on the block to buy a Polaroid camera that made wonderful prints with edges that looked like they were cut with pinking shears. I still have many of these prints, and the camera now sits alongside my Chatautauqua Seneca Uno and a host of other remnants of the photographic past.

I also often wonder about the generation currently coming of age that will most likely not have the comfort of a photo album filled with moments of time that memories aside, have no other form to them. In a time where seemingly every device we own takes pictures, few of these images ever make it to print form, and those that do become prints are often produced on $79 printers using dye-based ink and printed on no-name paper stock, the results of which seldom survive a few months on the refrigerator door.

So while I also embrace and appreciate the benefits of digital imaging, I also recognise what's been lost in the shuffle of progress.

I link the ideas of losing the sharing of tangible memories (person to person or on your own) and the loss of the photograph as object with the loss of a different kind of existence/world. When objects had intrinsic value - when photos were assigned value, a value that in the world of digital I think is often never assigned much beyond the "solitary quick look"  through your interface of choice: computer, cell phone, MP3 player, etc. When we become a world without new photos I wonder what will become of the pre-digital era photographs collecting in people's attics and drawers. Will they be treasures found and cherished - will they make people sad/nostalgic? Or will they be thrown out at first glance, seen as something wrong that needs to be quickly forgotten and shuffled away? I guess that depends on the person - but I'm curious as to the majority.

Megan Iverson wrote:
When we become a world without new photos I wonder what will become of the pre-digital era photographs collecting in people's attics and drawers. Will they be treasures found and cherished - will they make people sad/nostalgic? Or will they be thrown out at first glance, seen as something wrong that needs to be quickly forgotten and shuffled away? I guess that depends on the person - but I'm curious as to the majority.

I see a lot of inquiries on message boards about the discovery of old slides, negatives, and photos -- most are from folks looking to buy a scanner and digitize them for posterity. Kind of the opposite of what we're talking about here.

Granted, no one is going to post a question about what kind of trash bag they should use to throw old photos away, but I would think that most people would want to keep them - it's a connection to older members of their family.

Jim Fisher wrote:

Granted, no one is going to post a question about what kind of trash bag they should use to throw old photos away, but I would think that most people would want to keep them - it's a connection to older members of their family.

You would think, but sometimes I've witnessed the quick destruction and dismemberment of family photos/albums. There's something intensely personal about the photograph - the kind you can hold. And I think some people believe if you can destroy or cast it off then it never happened. Or some sort of guilt or bad feeling will be dispensed with. It's quite curious.

What you said about digitizing is true too - I can understand making a digital copy to back it up or to make more copies, etc. But to make the digital and destroy the original.... Is that to save space or something? I don't understand. Why not just organize it all better if it's bothering you that much. Or give the hard copy to someone who will cherish it?

Jim Fisher wrote:

Megan Iverson wrote:
When we become a world without new photos I wonder what will become of the pre-digital era photographs collecting in people's attics and drawers. Will they be treasures found and cherished - will they make people sad/nostalgic? Or will they be thrown out at first glance, seen as something wrong that needs to be quickly forgotten and shuffled away? I guess that depends on the person - but I'm curious as to the majority.

I see a lot of inquiries on message boards about the discovery of old slides, negatives, and photos -- most are from folks looking to buy a scanner and digitize them for posterity. Kind of the opposite of what we're talking about here.

Maybe they are planning to put together a photobook with captions and family history.  By putting it into a book like that the pictures have more meaning and can be shared with a larger number of people. 

Jane Wagman wrote:
 

Maybe they are planning to put together a photobook with captions and family history.  By putting it into a book like that the pictures have more meaning and can be shared with a larger number of people. 

Anything is possible, but I'm thinking that the majority are just digitally archiving for the sake of digtally archiving. Many people suggest "you should just scan the good ones, not all 10,000" or some astronomical number. It's as if selectively digitizing was never an option -- "I need to scan all of these slides that I found in my grandfather's attic." (Emphasis mine)

I think there's a pyschological aspect working here in the folks who want to undertake such a project to begin with -- an inherent desire to preserve the images. It's not one that I disagree with or disparage -- I'm a bit OCD when it comes to archiving my photos -- both film and digital. Negatives and slides can fade over time, or can be lost in a fire, flood, or other tragedy. As Andrew pointed out, it is easier to protect digital files via backup -- assuming you have a good system that includes redundancy and multiple physical locations for backups.

Unfortunately, I never had the acumen for print layout. I've tried to make photo books before and I just get frustrated with the graphic design process -- it's very difficult for me to create page layouts that aren't anything but banal. If I'm makikng an album, I'd rather get prints made and go for the old-school cellophane covered album pages. There's something wonderfully kitschy about it, especially when done today in deference to all the high-end printing and design tools that are available.

Great post. Funny you should write about this. I've been having my digital images printed for as long as I've been shooting digital. I have the need to touch and feel the images as well as pass them around to my family. I'm writing this comment from my wife's hospital room and we've just looked at hard copies of pictures of my niece's 9 month old son. We've taken them and put them up on the bulletin board in the room to share with any and all visitors. Emailing pictures just doesn't do it for me. How can anyone cherish a digital file?

Steve Schwartz wrote:

Great post. Funny you should write about this. I've been having my digital images printed for as long as I've been shooting digital. I have the need to touch and feel the images as well as pass them around to my family. I'm writing this comment from my wife's hospital room and we've just looked at hard copies of pictures of my niece's 9 month old son. We've taken them and put them up on the bulletin board in the room to share with any and all visitors. Emailing pictures just doesn't do it for me. How can anyone cherish a digital file?

First - I hope you're wife is ok and that she gets to go home soon. Thanks for sharing your experiences with the printed photo with us - The bulletin board sounds like a great idea - as you mention for your wife and everyone who comes to visit.

I don't print many individual prints anymore, but I do like to have something to hold in my hand so I have photobooks professionally printed at Viovio.   The cost - especially for paperbacks is surpsingly affordable.  And it is so much fun to make (and see) a full wrap cover!

I digiscrap, and even if you aren't into the frills it is pretty simple to put a years worth of pictures into an album with captions and comments so that others will know what the picture was about.  I make seperate book for major events like family vacations or reunions, weddings etc., and the beauty of digitial is once a book is complete it only takes a simple click to order duplicates to share. 

Jane Wagman wrote:

I don't print many individual prints anymore, but I do like to have something to hold in my hand so I have photobooks professionally printed at Viovio.   The cost - especially for paperbacks is surpsingly affordable.  And it is so much fun to make (and see) a full wrap cover!

I digiscrap, and even if you aren't into the frills it is pretty simple to put a years worth of pictures into an album with captions and comments so that others will know what the picture was about.  I make seperate book for major events like family vacations or reunions, weddings etc., and the beauty of digitial is once a book is complete it only takes a simple click to order duplicates to share. 

Thanks for sharing your approach Jane. The book is an interesting solution. You only print the images you want and you get to make it your own - while still having a tangible way to experience your photographs.

I actually find that more people see my digital images than ever saw my prints. In the print days I would take the roll of film to Walmart to get them developed and I *might* get double prints. But nobody ever saw them, sometimes not even me after the initial viewing.

Now I go to a family event like Easter, I take pictures and a few days later they are uploaded to SmugMug with a notice to everyone in my family that they are there for viewing. They can print what they want or simply view the images.

The SmugWallet iPhone app lets me sync them to my Iphone so I can view/show them even when I don't have an internet connection. I have over 4000 images in my iPhone that can be pulled up any time.  I have pictures of my family, my vacations and even our pets.
 
One of the great things about digital is that it is possible to backup our images like we never could before.  I can't easily make copies of negatives and slides but now that they are all in the computer I can make perfect copies and store them offsite in case of fire or other calamity.  Yes, there is some discipline involved.  But that is required for taking care of physical prints as well which can fade or be ruined by something as simple as a spilled cup of coffee.  All my images can be easily searched and accessed and displayed on any computer in my house all the way up to a 96" projection screen in my home theater.

Digital has allowed me to share images like I never could before.

I just scanned a whole photo album so I could post the images on my Facebook page for family to see.   Family members that have seen them have already contacted me making sure I do not toss the original photos.  They are in a fire resistant safe now. My point is, people still love holding and touching a photograph.  It is like you're "holding" those in the photograph.  In a way, you are at least sharing something with them because, more than likely, those in the photo held that very same photo.

I have to admit that while I did use decent cameras and lenses thirty years ago (Olympus OM series) the quality of the photographs amazed and surprised me. I think many of us gave up on film too quickly.  

The scans were true to the originals.  So much so, I've started a wish list at B&H of films to buy.   With film and a scanner, I think I'll have the best of both worlds.

JC wrote:

I just scanned a whole photo album so I could post the images on my Facebook page for family to see.   Family members that have seen them have already contacted me making sure I do not toss the original photos.  They are in a fire resistant safe now. My point is, people still love holding and touching a photograph.  It is like you're "holding" those in the photograph.  In a way, you are at least sharing something with them because, more than likely, those in the photo held that very same photo.

Good to hear - I especially like what you said about sharing something with the people in the photograph.

This goes along with people not writing letters anymore, its sad. Even today

I wonder if the younger generation would even appreciate a hand written letter.

Home made pie, home made ice creat, lists goes on and on.

charley wrote:

This goes along with people not writing letters anymore, its sad. Even today

I wonder if the younger generation would even appreciate a hand written letter.

Home made pie, home made ice creat, lists goes on and on.

I still write letters. The people I send them to have expressed various emotions on getting a hand written letter in the mail - finding something in their mailbox that isn't a bill or junk. That alone is incentive to keep writing them. There's something about the time and thought that went into those letters - I think it carries more weight with people than an email, for instance.  It's the same thing with photos - or baking, or anything along those lines - time and effort and some level of care goes into it that goes beyond the effort it takes to buy something or upload a photo.

 A print, whether it's a little 3x5 or an 11x14 - you can hold it, feel it, touch it, smell it - you can hang it on a wall or stick to a refrigerator. When I come home at night, as I open my front door and turn on the lights, the first thing I see are walls full of prints of all sizes. It feels good to see them there when I wake up or come home. In fact - without those photographs hanging on my walls, my house wouldn't feel like home. 

PassingThru wrote:

 In fact - without those photographs hanging on my walls, my house wouldn't feel like home. 

Agreed

Oh no - prints are the way to go. Digital files, and viewing them on screens is fine for a quick fix and the cheap shlock advertising stuff - but when it comes to family matters - nothing beats a photo album. You can't replace sitting by the fire with a binder full of memories in your lap with a computer and photobucket. It's not the same thing at all and it never will be.

Megan Iverson, you are right! We must print our best pictures. I have already some unreadable CDs or DVDs due to sistem change, brand readers change , poor quality and so on. And, unfortnately, we notice it when it is to late. When printing your digital images choose the best quality because the time they last is also a uncertain matter and for shure thei will not last as long as the old silver base printings. Thankyou and keep giving us good tips on how to preserve the good family or individual moments.

Best regards from Brazil,