Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Response to Culling Photographs

A photo I return to again and again...
my grandmother with an unidentified little girl.
I found an interesting conversation generated over at The Turning of Generations blog in response to my Culling Photographs post about a week ago. Blog author Michelle Goodrum provides thoughtful guidelines for working out how to decide if you should toss out an old photo. The comments related to her post were also wonderful and raise many concerns one might have with appraising images and discarding.

This topic actually gets very personal for me. My mother has a shoebox of nameless people from the early-twentieth century. These are presumably relatives who were scattered around the world or killed during the Holocaust. This makes the shoebox worth keeping...for now. We have a general idea about the subjects of the image. We know they were passed to my mother from her parents. We have a small bit of context, which is sometimes not the case with a shoebox of orphan photos.

There is talk in my family of using face recognition software to try to identify the people in the images. It would be exciting to find some answers. If we can't, perhaps a repository related to Poland or to the Holocaust would be interested in these images. Usually, realistically, Archives do not want orphan images. The millions and millions they can collect are virtually useless without information. Perhaps because I have some context, someone will want these images...but I am not sure if all of these photos are of people lost in the War. I'm not sure if they are relatives or acquaintances. How much information do these unlabeled images really give and how much context do they really hold?

Right now I have no information, but I have hope. Our family will keep this shoebox until we've exhausted the possibilities for identification. By the end of my lifetime, if we have not found family connections or the technology to help us identify people, surely I have given the search enough time. The next generation does not need a shoebox full of permanently lost information. The important thing is for me to label the images we know and to convey to my daughter what happened to her ancestors and why. I want to tell her the stories of her great grandparents who escaped from terror and spend my time recording the memories we have of them rather than holding out false hope that what cannot be found will turn up someday.

One thing struck me when reading comments from genealogists about keeping family photos. It often comes up as I move between the worlds of individuals with personal papers and families with personal papers. The professional archives can more easily turn away papers and orphan photos than families interested in history can release them. The repositories do not have a sentimental attachment. That distinction may seem obvious, but as a consultant, I must keep in mind that it makes it harder for clients to overcome hesitancies about getting rid of anything. In fact, genealogists are so well-versed with the search for information and the finding of unexpected threads that I can sincerely understand negative responses to the idea of "culling." However, there are images that one just will never be able to identify no matter how long one searches.

I want to tell you that there does come a time when you should let go. Eyes staring back at us from a printed sheet pull us in. Photographs have a unique ability to let us feel the humanity of their subject. It can be hard to break the attachment we feel with our heart. Let yourself accept that moment of letting go when it comes. Not everything can or should be saved. Do not let what is important get lost among the clutter.


  1. This post was emailed to me because author @rgscarter had trouble getting this comments section to accept it. I think because it is so long. Thank you Rodney for your thoughtful post! - Melissa

    Since my comment yesterday seems to have got lost in the ether I thought I would re-write it. The upside of this glitch is that it has allowed me to be a little more reflective on the subject. One distinction that I didn’t make in my first comment is that your advice is, if I am not mistaken, aimed at individuals and their personal collections and genealogists. I am approaching it as an archivist who has inherited collection “orphan” photographs.

    First, I want to say that, by and large, I agree with your advice to individuals in your Culling Photos post and the Response. If at all possible, people should take a little time and effort to go through their photographs and provide as much information as possible about them with the hope of avoiding that loss of the information in the future. Organization and description is vitally important. As is appraisal.

    I am not in full agreement, however, with your point that led to the Response: “Do you know anything about the image? …do you really need to keep it? (No)”. There are several reasons for this, which I will try to quickly cover but your 8th point (“Does the image pique your curiosity?”) I think is very important to keep in mind.

    The subject of orphaned photographs, what I term anonymous photographs, is near and dear to me. I wrote my thesis on the topic, arguing for the archival value of these objects. It is a fallacy to think that the only thing important about the photograph is the identity of the sitter. I would argue that only those looking for a particular individual (or family) actually care about who is depicted. For many researchers, the identity of the sitters is inconsequential. There is a great deal that we can learn from orphan photographs about dress, social norms, visual culture, material culture, about the physical and architectural world depicted.

    The key is to be able to put the photographs in the hands of users. They cannot be left to languish untouched in vaults or they truly will be worthless. If archives are able to apply even a bit of smart description and provide access, these once-orphaned images might be given new life.

    One thing that I have been interested in is the use of anonymous photographs in creative works. As they are not limited by identifications and other textual anchors, they are wide open to interpretation. They can serve as inspiration and provide insight and understanding, even if it is not the capital-t “Truth”.

    Your shoebox of photographs sound extremely precious. While knowing exactly who is depicted and their story would be amazing, that is not at all that you can share about them. It could be argued that they are even more powerful, in the context of your family’s story, because they are now nameless.

    I think I’ve probably gone on too long here already so I will end there. Should anyone be interested, my thesis can be found here: . I’ve found your posts very interesting and look forward to seeing your new book.

  2. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I don't think we really disagree though. There are always fine lines to making appraisal decisions. I too find value in orphan votes, as evidenced in my "More Finds at the Local Antique Shop" postings. Maybe the distinction needs to be clarified between different "types" of orphan photos (for lack of a better term.) For example, there are non-descript photos of non-outstanding subjects in unidentifiable places that I would argue should be discarded. Photos of people in distinguishing dress and photos that offer a real sense of place or time do provide valuable insight about humanity. These can be valuable for some repositories - not all. Repositories have different collection policies and focuses.

    Perhaps the one place we might disagree is about my box of family photos. Since the identities of the people in photos is unknown and the context is tenuous, I would not save these items just because they were passed down in my family. The images seem like they might be precious, but for all I know at this very moment, these people have no relation to my family. Things sometimes end up in odd places. It is powerful to think that those pictured have some connection to the heart of my family story, but without evidence of that it is just a fairytale.

    Finally, I just want to highlight your point that you are coming at this from an archivist's perspective. The historical context - dress, place, etc. might not have as much meaning to those seeking family connections as those providing a context for a greater history.

    These are all wonderful points that you made and I'm glad that you raised them! I welcome the opportunity to clarify and develop my ideas. People should put a lot of thought into deciding what to keep and what to discard. Do your homework by asking family members about unrecognizable faces. Do some outside research too, but one should not feel guilt in discarding photos with no available information related to them.

  3. And then this came across my desk through Twitter from @LifetimeStories

  4. Another moving and thought provoking post and the comments are just as informative. Thank you!

  5. I have chosen you for the One Lovely Blog Award. Please stop by The Turning of Generations at to pick up your award.