This is the second of a series of excerpts from a book of my essays on photography which will be published in 2016.
I grew up with photography.
My mother was a photographer, although she would never use that term. She would say that she took pictures of her children and, indeed, that was what she did. But in the process of making photographs and putting them in albums for her children she created an archive of images that became the most valuable resource our family owned.
Like most families we would have grabbed the photo albums first if there were a house fire: everything else was replaceable. Photographs, unlike land and other property, may be readily passed from generation to generation. They can be shared, published, printed and framed, and can be a legacy for families and society. Prior to the development of photography most people would never see an image of their distant family members. Only the rich could afford to hire artists to paint family portraits.
The photograph albums were brought out on rainy Sunday afternoons or when relatives or friends visited in the evenings. Friends never phoned to say that they were coming to spend the evening with us, they just dropped in. We stopped what we were doing and welcomed them. Families of relatives and friends arrived to visit, tell stories, catch up on the latest local news, then have coffee and cake (often referred to as lunch) before returning home late in the evening.
We were all in the albums: children, adults, grandparents, uncles, deceased uncles and great-grandparents, deceased uncles in uniform, neighbours, friends of friends, everyone. Photography gave each person immortality and a place in our community.
There were also boxes of negatives, mostly unpackaged, and many slightly scratched. I held them to the light and saw a different image of my family and me. I also knew that these could be used to make more prints, but that they would not be the same as the prints in the albums.
Cameras were for Sundays, birthdays, trips to Cypress Hills Park, baseball teams, visits by aunts from North Dakota, and church activities. No one photographed regular work or domestic activities and no one felt that buildings or landscapes were suitable subjects for photographs unless people were included in the photographs.
My mother made her early photographs in bright sunlight. She would ensure that the the sun was shining over her shoulder; we would stare into the sun as she prepared to click the shutter. Many of the photographs show me either squinting or holding my hand above my eyes to block the sun. Summers are bright and hot in southern Saskatchewan.
My Mother’s cameras were Kodak box cameras and, later, a Kodak twin lens reflex Duaflex II. They used 620 or 120 film; the large negatives compensated for the mediocre lenses.
The development and marketing of the Kodak camera (the first commercially successful box camera with roll film) in 1888 was far more significant to photography than the invention of the digital camera. Prior to the introduction of digital cameras most people in industrialized countries had at least one 35mm camera, either a point-and-shoot or an SLR. Millions of photographs were made each year. But prior to 1888 very few people other than professional photographers owned and used a camera.
The box camera provided an easy and relatively inexpensive way to create photographs. Frame, click the shutter, wind to the next image. Each roll film allowed for twelve exposures. The first Kodak cameras came pre-loaded with film. Once that film was exposed the owner returned the camera to Kodak who processed the film and re-loaded the camera. Their advertising motto was ‘You press the button – we do the rest.’
The photographs made by our grandparents, parents and ourselves may be combined to create our personal photographic history. In 1976 I received a Canada Council Explorations grant to create an exhibition entitled An Investigation of a Personal Photographic History. I created new images and worked with photographs made by my mother when I and my sisters were very young. I contrasted images of my children with those made of my sister and me on the same family farm and also included photographs of my children in their urban environment.
I have my mother’s albums and her negatives in my collection of photographs. Archival storage boxes and albums provide great opportunities for us to store and share our personal photographic histories, the histories that are printed on paper.
Recently I chatted with an elderly person who is moving to a seniors centre. He had recently discarded 3,000 slides, but thought that he had kept the most important ones. Unfortunately, the ones he had intended to keep were apparently discarded with the larger group. History lost: but without help, knowledge and assistance from someone who knows and cares about photographs such events occur daily.
Now is the time for each of us to make plans about how we will deal with our photographic history. If we do not, someone will make decisions about our photographs after we’re gone. Those decisions may result in someone discarding some or all of your and your family’s photographic history.
How will you keep the thousands of digital photographs you have made of your family and your trips to Yosemite, New York and the Cypress Hills? How will someone retrieve them from the mouldering CDs or worn-out hard drives which you thought were permanent storage? How will your children or grandchildren extract photographs from your decrepit laptop?
Paper still works. Until you can be sure that you can store, access and enjoy photographs in other formats over a long period of time, I suggest that you create paper versions of your most valuable images and that you also create digital copies to keep in several physical locations. Remember that you will have to do whatever is necessary in the future to ensure that your digital files will be compatible with your hardware and software.
If your photographs are made or currently exist on paper or on film you may wish to make digital copies. If your photos are born digital make paper copies of the the best images and continue to update the software and hardware which house those images. Store copies of your digital files in locations separate from your original files.
Enjoy your photographic collection and share it with your friends and family. But also ensure that it is organized and intact, and includes directions with respect to where it should go after you are gone.
This is your photographic history. Treat it with the respect and care that it deserves: and do it now.