The Memoir in Your Closet – Part 2 – Old Photos

Some of you may have an advantage being in possession of a family Bible with the name and birth date of every member of your lineage going back generations. Perhaps you have them from both your paternal and maternal sides.

Others may have done some legwork, gotten on, filled out their family tree builder and made progress in this direction.

A few may have already started on composing a memoir, but got hung up on how to proceed.

Whether you fall into one of those groups, or are intrigued by the possibility having seen our previous blog post, the place to start is with the hard information you have on hand. Most often, those are photographs.

I was overwhelmed by the number of photos, slides, and negatives my parents had squirreled away. Apparently, they never threw anything out—likely my mother’s doing. There must have been fifty 3”x4” snapshots of my 3-year-old brother on a swing in Brooklyn and a hundred of an infant me being bathed in the kitchen sink; they haven’t, I bet, been looked at since they were taken. He’s 71 and I’m 67 now. Might my folks have skimmed through them and kept the best few and discarded the rest… half a century ago?

The Challenges:

  • Sorting the images. Classification was a challenge. Separate them by generation or decade or family group or featured individual? I may have gotten to my fifth photo when I understood the overlap of those categories was insurmountable.
  • Many of the photos, especially those early color shots had already faded. Temperature, humidity, and time all take their toll on the chemical images.
  • Volume: I had about eight cubic feet of photos. I didn’t want to store them forever and—on a personal note—I planned to move out of my 98-year-old father’s home when the inevitable happened, and I had no intention of carting all this stuff along with me.

The solution was simple: I needed to scan every image creating a digital representation that would—at least might—last forever, freezing any degradation to the images before it got worse. That would work for the prints, but what of the slides and negatives? And was my 3-in-1 printer-fax-scanner sufficient to the task? On that last point: not even close.

One-time Investment in a Solution:

With all the fiscal responsibility of a drunken sailor shooting dice, I went to ready to spend whatever it took to get a high-resolution scanner. $500? $700?

Surprise: I found the Epson V600 scanner, at that time for $199.95. [Note: If you put it in your cart, but don’t buy it for a few days, they often drop the price a few dollars to motivate you to close the deal.] There’s also the Epson V550 which has slightly lower resolution, but still more than adequate for this job. I would have purchased it and saved a few dollars had I seen it. Alas.

BONUS: These scanners digitalize photos, slides, B&W and color negatives. Every challenge solved for two-hundred bucks. With a platen large enough for legal-sized documents, I can tell you with the wisdom of experience—6,000 scans later—the device worked perfectly.

There is a learning curve and I had to suffer through it myself, but I’ll be presenting a full user’s manual of the Epson V600/V550—applicable specifically to this project—later on.

Where to Start?

Photos lie directly on the glass, however, whatever kind of scanner you acquire, there are slide-holders and negative-holders for the other images, so scan one kind of original media at a sitting. Just prints, just slides, just B&W negatives, or just color negatives.

I told my brother about the endeavor I was about to undertake, and the scanner I had just ordered. He brought me an additional carton of slides in projector cassettes containing a lifetime of images; the earliest from the 1940s. He dropped them on my desk, and said, “Do these first.” They were on top, so I did all the slides first, but you attack your stack any way you wish.

You would be wise to contact your relatives, especially those in your nuclear family, and ask them to contribute. You don’t need to scan their stacks of pictures of your niece on the swing or your nephew in the bath, but family photos from before WWII or any time of transition in your lives are to be treasured.

So start sorting your photos, separating by the type of media. Have a few antique photos you’ll want to keep even after they’re scanned because of their age? Keep them separate, there are reasons.

I’m proposing—and I practice what I preach—that you’ll discard most of the originals you scan. I’ve saved the very old photos, such as this one of my paternal grandparents in 1917, and a few others such as the slide, above, of my mother in 1948. Just because. But most of the scenery-only snaps you’ve taken on vacation just take up room and will go into recycling.

If cell-phone photography had existed back then, ALL your photos would be digital anyway, as will be our children’s photohistory. We’re just catching up.

One warning before we quit for now. Avoid the lapse of judgment that caught me. There were many orphaned negatives in my stash: negatives not associated with prints. Mindlessly, I also separated the prints from the negatives when I found them together in envelopes. Down the road, the images I was making from the negatives, scanned last, began to look familiar. I realized I was scanning the negatives of prints I had already scanned and wound up with two of each image. Occasionally, that worked to my advantage, the print had faded, but the negative had held its color. Otherwise, it was a lot of duplicate work.

Next time I’ll talk about gathering your family folk lore, the first of several such discussions. My intention is to post at least one chapter per week, perhaps two. If you’ve stumbled across this post and would like notification of new additions, please follow the blog.

As always, let me know what you think through your comments. Constructive suggestion and criticism is always welcome.






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