Print for Your Children’s Children

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Having hundreds of thousands of images categorized, tagged and sorted on a computer is a wonderful thing. It makes all the non-photo-related chores that used to go along with the art of photography many times simpler and sometimes even automated. Instead of labeling and filing away into plastic sleeves, fighting off dust and taking up space in your closet, we now batch name, drag into a “folder” and easily back up onto an external drive for redundancy (or maybe even that ambiguous cloud we all have heard so much about).

Storing your images digitally is certainly convenient, but it may prove detrimental in the long run.

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Walk through any resale shop and you’re sure to come across a wealth of interesting finds. Chairs, silverware, even cameras. Of all these eye catching items, there’s usually one I’m drawn to immediately: the photo basket — a small bin filled with vintage pictures of families, soldiers, kids, cars and parades (etc).

These old photos, as cliché as it sounds, are windows into our collective past. The moment you take them up into your fingers you feel connected to the world they were created in. You imagine being there the day they were taken. You see the weathered look of the print, the yellowing, the creases, and feel the years that have gone by.

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There’s something about holding a picture. Often, I find myself looking at a single print for as much time as I would typically skip through ten to fifteen JPEGs on a tablet screen. It takes on a new life in the hand. It lingers. I look at it from more than one angle, I bring it closer to my face, then, further away. Sometimes I’ll even move to a different room to see the photo in a new light, literally.

I’d argue that printing makes you a better photographer. It makes you examine your work longer and spend time with it. This point has been made before and I don’t want to make it again. Rather than look at printing as a way of improving your craft, we should look at the importance of printing as a way to connect with future generations.

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Photography, now more than ever, allows novices to record important events throughout their lives. Graduations, birthdays and marriages. Perhaps you have pictures of people that have passed on. Or maybe the first time you took a dip in the ocean. They’re snapshots of the events that have shaped us, and there’s a good chance the children of the future will have far less access to these memories than we do right now.

Many luddites and technophobes believe our future computers may not be able to read the files we’re currently shooting today. I find it hard to believe that in the distant future I won’t be able to find a program anywhere on the Internet that’ll be able to read a JPEG, or convert the most common of RAW files into something readable.

It’s not the perils of technology I’m worried about, but human error.

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Most people don’t know how to use computers. They know how to use computers, but they don’t really know how to use computers. When I talk about hard drives and backups and cloud based storage I get a blank stare in return nine out of ten times. And these people aren’t dumb. They’re our doctors, our lawyers. Our dentists and engineers.

If a person such as myself dies (and we haven’t been printing out our photos), we leave behind a box of hard disks and an online account of images stored in the cloud. I realize, in this situation, I’d no longer be on this Earth, but I still would like to refer to it as my “nightmare scenario”.

My closets are being cleaned out. My kids/grandkids find a box of hard drives. What’s the most likely outcome? The garbage or another closet, attic or basement. Hard drives hold no emotional weight. There’s a good chance, in that situation, nobody will ever see, enjoy or discuss my pictures ever again.

The sound of a 3.5” drive hitting the bottom of a trash sometimes keeps me up at night and it should keep you up at night too.

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For the past three years I’ve been making a habit of batch printing. For every photo I deem good enough to post-process, I make a print. The print gets archived into a photo box and goes into storage. I don’t post process everything and I certainly don’t print everything, but there is now a sizable collection of photos I’ve taken here in the physical world.

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It’s the best of both worlds. The security of backups as well as a box of something anyone can understand. I look in awe at some of the pictures my family still has around and think, will my kids, or my grandkids have this same type of experience? Will they get to see who his grandfather’s friends were and what the style was at the time and what dinners in the “old days” looked like?

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Sure, I suppose they could find this stuff out on the Internet — probably in better detail too. But there’s something about being a part of the photo. Knowing the person in the frame is really a part of you.

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There’s a reason those thrift shops I was talking about earlier have baskets of vintage photos. People have a hard time throwing a physical picture away. Even when they don’t want them anymore, they bring them to a place where someone else might see their value (and I’d like to think the real owners of those photos simply outlived anyone who cared to keep them in the family).

Or is this is all pointless? Billions of years from now when the Sun becomes a Red Giant and the Earth turns into a humongous floating rock, who will care about our photos and how we kept them? Whoever it is, I’m sure they’d have a much easier time understanding an image on paper over a bunch of 0’s and 1’s.

  • Michelle Di Paola

    I loved reading this. Looking at pictures on a computer or tablet will never compare to actually having the print in your hand. (Similar to reading a book on an ereader vs holding the actual book in your hands). I definitely cherish printed photographs more than ones I leave on the computer.

  • Frank McKenna

    I didn’t even consider this. This is so true. Love this post.

  • Ralph Peteranderl

    WHile I agree that there will always be a program to open a jpeg file, what will do you in is the hardware. Does your computer still have a drive for 3.5 inch disks? What about a interface for a PATA hard drive? And who knows how long flickr et al. will be around. Technology moves fast, and we all have some files that are stranded on an old format, beyond recovery.
    Also, printing out pictures also means that you will do editing. If your grandchildren have to look through 20,000 pictures of your lunches etc., they will never find the one of you with your first car.
    So, yes, print in an archival medium and make sure to label the images.

  • fotogal

    Now with companies like Shutterfly, Snapfish, Blurb, etc., you can make a book to share the photos – digital scrapbooking. Make it by event, by the year – just make it.

  • Dave Reynolds

    We don’t have to wait for the sun to turn into a Red Giant for the great majority of our photos to no longer matter.

    I recently received a box from the brother of my dad’s wife. It was full of old photos of my dad in his excursions around the world and of his family. In addition to the prints was a book full of negatives.

    Most of the photos weren’t interesting to me because I had no context for appreciating what they showed. Just my dad with strangers. A few of them though, are now beloved by me because I know what’s going on or I know the people.

    We want to believe that we have led interesting enough lives and been capable-enough photographers to think that all the photos we have taken would be desired by our offspring or by strangers in subsequent generations. In the great majority of cases, though, our pictures are ordinary (okay, somewhat above ordinary to salve your ego) and the emotional moments are ours not those of subsequent generations. This is why the author’s venerated vintage photos are in vintage photo bins in the first place: they no longer held emotional value for their intended audience.

    Very few photographers can take pictures that arouse emotion or meaning very far beyond the moment that was captured. When there is no context or story for the viewer, the value of a photo quickly drops to zero.

    For this reason, if you want your photos to be desired after you die, be connected to the people who you want to value your photos. Make sure there are more stories than piles of photos. Because the important stories always live in the memories of people and those stories are what make people treasure a photo of a moment. Without a story and a moment, a photo has no emotional value. A stack of printed photos is useless without story, memory and emotion. The value is in the moment not the quantity of printed pictures.

  • Bill Binns

    Excellent advice. I try to bring a flash drive to the drugstore once a month and print off a bunch of .39 prints. Nothing fancy but I consider this my last chance backup as well as a hedge against history.

    I have been doing this since I found an entire album of photos left from a forgotten relative of Alaska during the gold rush.

  • spiralphoto

    Photobooks are where it’s at. Pick your best and favorite shots, make your pages, and order the book. Volumes of photos on a shelf.

  • hysyanz

    something ive been saying for the past 5 years

  • Mosleyh10

    I agree 100%. I would also take the history aspect a step further. Annotate the prints you already have, including the ones your parents/grandparents, etc. took . YOU may know who the oddly-dressed people in those photos are, but your children may not. And you may not be around by the time they think to ask.

  • Jf

    My mother died 6 months ago. She wanted a family book. I scanned over 1000 pictures, repaired and retouched probably 400. Pictures dated back to the late 1800 to 1958. The book (75 pictures and a DVD with all scans and the genealogy) is now in the hand of her children and grand children (and her sister’s).

    She left with the knowledge of who were some of the people seen on the picture. As her oldest son, and the only one technically inclined, It is my responsability to reorganize and annotate this heritage.

    Now I have to get started on my father’s images and book, my sisters, mine…

  • George M. Dinsdale

    Excellent post – My mom is moving into a seniors’ home and getting rid of all her old pics. She gave me a box with over 1000 photos in it which I proceeded to scan and then chuck out.

    The scenery pics went first. As stated above, with no context, they held no meaning. Then were the relatives I did not know – hundreds. My great grandma & her friends whom I never met. Finally my baby pics (I’m 46!) and recent family photos.

    They are all on a external drive on my desk – what happens if that drive fails?
    Go to the cloud? – What happens if that fails? Megaupload users probably thought it was safe too…Lots to think on…

  • Mosley Hardy

    When my parents got too feeble to get around well, I gathered up the family photos and photographed them on a copy stand. That method has the advantage of high throughput and the ability to use framed photos “as-is”.

    I then made a slideshow in iMovie with music and transitions which I burned to DVD. It was a lot of work, but the HOURs that both parents spent in front of the TV watching it over and over made the effort more than worthwhile.

    Now I have the originals, digital images, a video slideshow that I’ve shared with my relatives, and the memory of how happy the results made my parents, who are both now deceased.

  • Jared

    When my grandfather died last year, my mother’s family gathered at his house. Each brought with them a box full of memories: Photo albums. the entire family, all 7 sons and daughters and all 15 grandchildren, poured through the prints one by one reliving things that we’d forgotten.

    I won’t preach, but I will say that the experience of viewing images as a family, or as a community, is much more powerful than sending them through emails and text messages. Thank god they lived in the analogue era; How would play out at my funeral? Is everybody going to Dropbox their photos to one collective account that we can all view independently?

  • David Becker

    Having inherited several lifelong photo collections, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I felt recurring pangs of guilt as I went through my aunt’s slides and tossed the vast majority of them, but 98 percent had no meaning for me or anyone else still living. No knock on my aunt or uncle for taking them, but their value pretty much expired with them.

    Talk all you want about historical value or art, but once you come into possession of 20 pounds of Ektachrome, you get a little more realistic about the shelf life of most images.

    Also, you have a much better chance of your images meaning something to your posterity if you follow good metadata practices.

  • Nicole Marcisz Ellison

    Joseph, your point is well taken and now I think I will be waking up in the middle of the night with these nightmares of digital images getting tossed after I am dead and gone. I do love to hold photos (especially old photos) and look at them. And I do try to make a point to print off and either scrapbook or place in album regularly as events take place in my life. I don’t think kids these days really appreciate the “printed photograph” like we do.
    thank you for your article.

  • Nicole Marcisz Ellison

    I second that David. Follow good meta data practices, or if you print photos write down some basic info (date, place, who’s in photo). Like many people I have a box of old family photos that have much mystery. I have no idea who half the people are. I am so grateful for the few that have notes written on them.

    But you know when I go to antique shops and see old photos I think about how even though I have no idea who this person was- this was somebody who had a life. so much mystery and wonder it evokes.

  • William

    Last year I scanned over 20GB of old family photos into jpegs and put them onto USB sticks, and that was everyone’s Xmas gift. Everyone else got the gift of seeing old photos they hadn’t seen in years, and perhaps as a greater gift, I got to physically examine all those old shots. Including an old tintype that I didn’t even know existed, what a pleasant surprise that was! Looking at it on a screen was nothing compared to holding it and imagining the day it was made, to one day be scanned by me.
    But you’re right, in even 500 years(let alone billions), who will even care about us or our photographs

  • Phil Le Clercq

    Great post and certainly give me food for thought for my own libraries, it’s been something I’ve been mulling over too, especially things like passwords to PCs, do I leave them in a will? :)

    My Dad was a professional photographer using film, he died a while back, but I asked for his negatives. I have 40-50 thousand packets of negatives to scan, and the good and bad part is he recorded, where the job was and when as part of his accounts, so I have a good set of context information to go with the photos, it’s just getting through them all that’s stalled…one day :) At 300Meg per 6×9 medium format colour negative its both time and storage, safe redundant storage, that’s the hard part.

    One day.. :)

  • Debi Boring

    Thank you for this Becky! For the past 6 months, I’ve been scanning my old photos, as well as printing my more recent photos, to help tell my story, as I am putting together a simple Book of my Life (using part of your Project Life system). I too have many, many discs that I’ve copied pics of my grandaughters on, and often wonder, if I die tomorrow, will they every be looked at again.

    I love, love, LOVE Stacy Julian’s idea I learned, many, many years ago of her Photo Freedom idea and have TONS of photos, all catagorized in my nifty pull out drawers. I love having the hard copy photos! My grandaughters sometimes ask to see pics of their daddy, when he was growing up, so I just go to his section, and many, many photos of just him are together for them to look through. It just makes me happy. *Ü*. So your post was very timely for me and I thank you for giving me the validation that I’m on the right track!

  • Ben Kennedy

    Excellent article Joe, you’ve made me think

  • Eileesh Buckley

    Photobooks all the way .. I’ve done a few photobooks over the past 6 years since I got my first digital SLR, mostly they’ve been books of events / interests I’ve been to so I have the memories. I have made sure to put in notes/comments through the books to ensure they’re not just isolated images. I even put together a book this year of photos from concerts all taken on my current & previous mobile phones. Just in the past 2 years I’ve a boosk of my photos from London2012, the world police & fire games 2013 x3 , shannon womens rugby 2012, Ireland womens rugby grand slam 2013, & the aforementioned gig pics. I’m not so good on the family photos etc. but I am glad to have my sporting memories. I am intending to go though my digital photo archives & do a few more books, before I start the task of digitizing my print collection.. I got my first camera ~25 years ago so there’s quite a backlog to get through.