Saturday, March 5, 2011

Culling Family Photographs

A Twitter friend recently tweeted a link to The rise and rise of family photographs . It is an interesting article that discusses the ubiquitous nature of photographs today. It provides a brief synopsis of photography's rise to make the capture of a human's visage and form an ordinary event and not an extraordinary one as it was a little over half a century ago.  The author uses his personal family photos and some stories associated with them to relate how photographs convey heritage and "the knowledge of what made us who we are." He explains how the stories are important to give context to an image and that photos without a back-story pique our curiosity, encouraging us to seek more information. Alternately, when information cannot be found, unlabeled images can be useless. The author also discusses how despite the profusion of images today, families often find that scenes they would like documented through photographs are missing from their personal collections, with the potential to leave holes in family memory. This article excels in drawing attention to family photography collections and raises awareness of the desirability of maintaining such a collection to preserve family legacy. The author even discusses the need to continually transfer digital images as technology evolves. The one shortcoming I saw in the article was in this statement:

"No doubt whoever threw away that picture of [my ancestor] thought it to be merely rubbish. The only answer, therefore, is to hang on to all of it and let our descendants do the sifting."

I referenced the article for the Twitter-sphere this way: "RT @: The rise & rise of family   [I like this, but only answer is NOT 2 keep everything!]"

I heard back from the person who brought the article to my attention. She wrote "@archivesinfo Good advice, but so very difficult! How do you decide what to discard?"

How fortunate that I just wrote about keeping photographs in my upcoming book "Preserving Memories," which is due out later this year. (Shameless pre-publication plug?) In this posting, I will explain how family record keepers should approach appraisal (deciding what to keep and what to get rid of) for personal photo collections. We really do not need to keep everything. We do not need to be afraid to determine what is unnecessary. We do not need to leave the "dirty work" for our descendants. If we do, eventually someone is likely to get frustrated and just throw the whole kit-and-kaboodle into the trash. Handing down a well-managed collection of personal papers and photographs to loved ones encourages them to treasure the items, keep up their maintenance, AND to value the family history that they embody.

-  Think of your printed photos and digital files as one "collection." Your images visually tell your family story. What events, people and places do you want to remember?

- Start simply. The simplest way to reduce the burden you may feel with your collection is to remove duplicates. You only need one copy of each image. Then consider images that are similar. Do you really need a close-up of your birthday cake and then ten images showing mom brining the cake into the room, putting it on the table, you blowing out candles, etc.? Which of the images in the series best represent the occasion? You may find that three out of ten cover all aspects of the story, from the people who were there to what you wore. You may find that just one does the trick.

- Are all of the images in good condition? Sometimes the condition of an image can help narrow the field. However, also weigh if the image fills a gap in your story. If the image is in poor condition, but is the only one of its kind. Keep it.

- Do you know anything about the image? Is the person someone you don't know? Can someone else in your family identify the person in the image? If an old image sits around for years and nobody can be found who knows anything about it, do you really need to keep it? (No)

- Sometimes we just get snap-happy. I really enjoyed taking photographs of the mountains out of my car window up in North Conway, NH on a recent vacation there, but really most of the images look the same. The mountains may have been different and exciting in person, but in an image they don't convey much. I'll get rid of most of them.

- Remember that a printed photograph is not more valuable than one on your computer. We sometimes tend to more easily press the delete key than throw away an image. An image on paper does not embody a certain specialness that makes it more precious than any other kind of document. Make decisions about its future the same way you would make decisions about anything else.

- Always think about the story of the image. As our wise article writer points out, a photograph helps convey a family history. Does an image tell you something about the person pictured? Does it give a sense of place? Does it give a sense of time? Does it adequately tell you about an event? Is it just mundane with no informational value? If it doesn't have informational value, get rid of it.

- Does the image pique your curiosity? I have a few images of nameless people in nameless places that ring  bells. The pictures can be used to describe a legend in my family. If I can guess about a person's identity even though I can't confirm it, I often find an image worth keeping.

- Step back once in awhile and take a look at your photographs as a whole. Do they work together to convey a good sense of who you are and the people in your life? What is missing from the story? What images do not add to the story? Aim to create a tight grouping of materials that show the stages of your life and the lives of your loved ones. Keep images showing people changing through time. Keep the obvious highlights. Keep the images that convey personalities. Keep the ones that provide a sense of place. Get rid of those that don't add to the story.

- Organize your images to increase their value to future generations. Use an album or photo box to sort by subject or date. I keep my most prized images in chronological order. The images that I don't want to see regularly, but I still consider worthwhile for keeping are arranged by subject in more economical and less time consuming photo boxes. 

- Think of the organization of your digital images the same way you consider your printed files. Organize them in chronological folders as they are pulled from your camera. Use a software package that allows you to tag them with keywords for easy access.

- Label, label, label. If a photo is worth keeping, you should provide its back-story. Use a photo safe pen or pencil to record the name of the person, place, and/or event depicted. If there is a "story" to the image, supply as much as you can of that too.

- Do not try to do everything at once. Do not get overwhelmed. Review your family photograph collection a little at a time. If you are unsure about something you think you might want to throw away, wait to review it on another day. When in doubt, create a checklist of pros for keeping and pros for letting go. Appraisal is a bit of an art and not a science. Use your best, careful judgement.

@ddaruth this one's for you ;)


  1. @ddaruth says "outstanding"! Thanks so much for writing this post. Very helpful information to set me on the right path. Have been overwhelemed with the sheer number of photographs. I'm from the old school where it is sacrilige to throw any pictures away. Also, must admit having several copies of many photographs. Looking forward to your book!

    Thanks again,


  2. A great blog. As a personal photo organiser I encourage not taking so many photos, don't zoom so much as the history is in the background of a photo and that you can throw some away. My blog I wrote just yesterday comments on putting the camera down occasionally and making those photos worthwhile for future generations.

  3. I teach scrapbooking and this is exactly what I try to teach my customers. My biggest fear however is that there will be big gaps in family heritage because of the lack of hard copy photos today. We take lots but develop few! I do hope I am wrong!

    Thank you for the great article!

  4. Thank you Jenny and Margaret. Both of your comments are wonderful. Jenny, to me a sense of place in images is very important. It's obviously not necessary to always zoom out, but to really understand a person's life, that sense of place is critical. In fact, the two example photos at the beginning of this post demonstrate that. I asked my parents to send me photos of themselves as children in New York City to help me illustrate a section of my book on that idea of sense of place. I think the images clearly show their urban mid-20th century upbringing. I also like your point about putting down the camera. I'll check out your blog later this morning.

    Margaret, I agree about the potential problem from lack of hard copies. I print my favorite images, but the instability of inks is also concerning to me. Modern technologies give us lots of options though. For my personal family documentation efforts, I've begun experimenting with photobooks that I can print from online sites. At the end of last year I took my favorite images to sum up the events of 2010 to make a beautiful gift for myself. Migrating images from one technology to the next is also very important! I'm afraid that people will not pay enough attention to this issue and that much will be lost.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts ladies!

  5. Melissa,

    Thanks for another interesting post! What do you think about donating some photos from your family collection that you may be ready to let go of or may need to be better preserved? I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio and have been slowly donating some photos from my grandmother's collection that are mostly of close friends and neighbors to the Cleveland Public Library's Photo Collection (especially the African American Families Collection). Do you think that this is a good approach?

  6. Hi Dan,

    (You are all making me feel really good this morning. The last chapter of my new book is on donating. You are making me feel like I've hit on all the right points to make the book worthwhile! :)

    Yes, I think donating to a local collection where your family has roots is a great idea and usually the best approach. In general though, I like to see a "collection" donated as one whole, instead of in bits and pieces a little at a time. A family collection intact offers additional context to the viewer. Many public libraries and historical societies set up photo subject files and separate family materials from each other. I'm not sure how Cleveland P.L. does it. As an archivist, I'd rather see photo collections from one donor kept together with cross-references to subject headings for easier access. So, yes, I think donating locally is great. I would like to hear more about how your photos are kept within Cleveland's collections to say what I think of that approach. Kudos to you for recognizing the community value of your family history material!

  7. Wonderful job outlining clear, reasonable guidelines. We truly don't need to preserve every moment of every life. The single image that captures a time and place is more powerful than dozens posted online or scrapbooked. Editing is a good thing! Thanks so much.

  8. After each vacation/event,as part of the reminiscing process, I choose my "top 20" (or so). I put those onto a digital frame so I can enjoy right away. I often upload to print and have mailed to my parents because they like the printed versions. A few I'll use on Facebook or in blog postings sometimes. At the next vacation, I'll do the same routine, but delete about half of the first vacation's photos off the digital frame. Sometimes, I'll choose the top ones with a goal or a gift in mind - honor someone's legacy, birthday gift, etc. That forces me to choose my favorites. Those, I rename instead of the digicam # scheme. Others I just put in folders by the event.

  9. Excellent article with many good points to consider! I have inherited my family's extensive (and not particularly organized) photo collection that covers well over 100 years.

    One point you made caught my attention in particular:

    "If an old image sits around for years and nobody can be found who knows anything about it, do you really need to keep it? (No)"

    You are so right in not keeping all of those meaningless photos. My only caution is in the phrase "nobody can be found". This means you need to look for individuals who can identify the photo and that can take time (maybe even many years). I can say from personal experience that the effort can pay off in spades!

    Thanks for a fabulous article and one worth reviewing from time to time as I deal with organizing and streamlining my extensive family photo collection.

  10. We had a tintype of an unidentified CW soldier in our family. We figured he had to be a family member or close friend. I stumbled across a distant cousin who sent me a package of information about her great grandfather who was brother to my great, great grandmother. The first thing that fell out of that package was a duplicate (copy) of the tintype of our soldier. Some photos are best to never know who may have a duplicate.

  11. Thanks so much for all these great points. I do have trouble sometimes applying my archivist mind to personal projects but in the case of hoarding versus appraisal I'm definitely doing way more appraisal in personal records than I used to.

    Someone made the point (in reply to my post on the same Guardian article) that they do way more editing of digital photographs than of printed ones and I have to agree with this. I user to keep every single photograph I got developed off a film camera - because I'd paid for it! However with digital photos then I do all the editing before i even print them out. I think this kind of appraisal with digital photographs is quite common, often done without even thinking about it. Although maybe this says as much about the different values people place on digital and tangible objects as about any real desire to edit.

  12. Great points made. I enjoyed and have cataloged the ideas in the article and comments.

  13. Hi,
    Just discovered your blog through Michelle at Turning of Generation (who learned of it through Nolichucky Roots). This is great information--as I have gazillions of photos. Luckily, my grandmother and mom were maniacs at labeling , so many many have lots of details. some do not, however, and I'll follow this advice.

  14. See later post "Response to Culling Photos" for more info