Yesterday I decided to include several photographs made 69 years ago by my mother on our farm in Saskatchewan in an essay I am writing. I had grown up knowing the story of these photographs and could easily visualize them. I walked to a shelf, brought down one of my family's albums, scanned the photographs, and returned them to the album where they have resided since 1944.
The camera my mother used in 1944 used 116 film. The negatives were 2.5 x 4.25 inches and the prints which I have were contact prints, the same size as the negatives. The large negative sizes used in box cameras compensated somewhat for inexpensive lenses; the results were relatively high quality photographs, considering that these cameras had a fixed aperture and fixed shutter speed. The original point and shoot camera, without a built-in light meter.
The films my mother used in the 1940s had 8-12 exposures. After she exposed the film she would mail it to a processing company in Winnipeg and wait for the prints and negatives to arrive. She created albums for the prints and stored the negatives in a box. I have most of her prints and negatives and have used both to create photographs for exhibition and publication.
The albums became our family's most precious possessions. We, like most families then and now, would have grabbed the albums first if there were a fire or flood that threatened to destroy our home.
While my family's photographs have survived I'm worried about the digital images that many families have made. Most of them remain on hard drives, in batches of hundreds or thousands, vulnerable to changes in technology, failure of equipment and lack of knowledge with regard to how to find, use, store and back-up these valuable resources. No one cares about images they haven't seen, so if you leave 38,345 images in your computer when you pass on you can expect that all or most will be discarded if they haven't already met another fate.
I suggest that we print the images that we consider valuable and create photo albums with them. We can print images on home printers or take them to a photo store and have them printed there. Then, when your family members come to visit you can bring out the albums and show Aunt Mabel and Uncle Sam (from Minot, North Dakota) the photographs of the twins when they were two. One of them may suggest that the twins look very much like Grandpa Smith and, because you have your parents' albums and yours, you can look at photographs of several generations.
Those of you who own albums of photographs such as the one on my desk know that you too have an opportunity or obligation to scan and store those images properly. You may also wish to make copies for other family members while maintaining the original albums and photographs.
Family photographs have not changed much. Families still photograph their children and other family members, and finish with a handful of prints or thousands of electronic images. Parents then either create albums or leave boxes (hard drives) full of images for someone else to sort through. Whether you're using a box camera with a 12 exposure roll of film or a digital camera with almost limitless capacity you still want the same results: family photographs that last.
Become your own publisher: create family albums or books, and ensure that your photographic history is not lost.