Preserving the Past in a Futuristic World

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Uncle Jim (left) and my dad.

As long as I can remember, I have held a strong affection for old photographs. Finding boxes upon boxes filled with old pictures in my Nanny’s home and, after her death, in my father’s garage, is the one silver lining I can find in her proclivity for hoarding. When my father died nine years ago at 61, I was grateful to my Nanny for having kept his baby book, complete with photos, milestones, and a lock of his hair—so that in the midst of our sadness, my sisters and I could marvel at our dad’s cheeky grin and the twist of curls that once topped his head. So much life had passed between the moment captured in the photograph and the moment that I held it in my hands. It helped us in those days after his death to think of the beginning of our dad’s life as we braced ourselves against the grief of its end.

On New Year’s Day, before we had kids, my husband and I would organize all of the photographs we had taken during the previous year and put them into a photo album. While the process was long and tedious, it was also incredibly rewarding. The finished albums served as a memento of all of the adventures we had had throughout the year. We still bring them out from time to time to show our kids pictures of us when we were young and worldly globetrotters.

We stopped making those albums after we had kids. In fact, we ditched our old film camera when I was 11 weeks pregnant with our first child. The allure of the instant gratification of a digital camera was just too seductive. And, at first, it did seem like going digital had been the best decision we’d ever made.  There was no waiting to get the film developed, we could take photos wherever we went without worrying about “wasting” a frame, and there was no such thing as a bad photo because you could always view and “re-do” as necessary.

After our daughter was born we tried to revive our album-making project. We took the SD card to Walgreens and made prints of our photos. Unfortunately, we had overestimated the amount of free time (aka photo-organizing time) we would have with a newborn in the house—by a lot. Not able to complete the project, we put the photos in a box and stored it in the basement. We vowed to make the album someday soon.

Someday rolled around the following December. When I opened the box to begin organizing the photos, instead of images of my daughter’s sweet little face I found photos that were hazy and discolored. It seems that maybe our switch to digital might have been a bit hasty.

I’m not really sure what caused the damage to our photos. Maybe it was the paper they were printed on? Or maybe the ink was sensitive to the temperature variations in the basement? Whatever the cause, I’ve been dubious about the longevity of digital photography ever since. Sure, we’ve made prints and framed them. But I don’t hold much hope that our kids will be able to hold these contemporary photographs in their hands sixty years from now like I’m able to do with photos of my parents. And that makes me really sad.

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My mom and her brothers.

The image above of my dad and my uncle as boys is one of my favorites. They both wear mischievous grins, dirty t-shirts, and expressions that hint at the no-good they were up to in the moments before the camera took that shot. I would give anything to know what they had been doing and thinking in that moment. My uncle Jim, although two years younger than my dad, had died before him after a long battle with lung cancer. They both experienced such pain at the end of their lives. All that pain is washed away for a few moments when I’m looking into the faces of their young selves and imagining the mischief they had been making.

And in the photo above left, my mom and her two brothers sit for a photo in my grandparents’ backyard. My mother’s nose is scrunched up and she is squinting at the camera. Perhaps the sun was shining in her eyes. She’s wearing a bathing suit, so maybe she and my uncles had gone swimming in the bay at the edge of my grandparents’ property. The next time we talk, I’ll ask her. I wonder if she’ll remember.

Flexible film was invented by George Eastman in 1889 and enabled the widespread use of hand-carried box cameras. Although the technology was improved upon over the course of the next 120 years, each iteration produced more-or-less the same outcome: reliable, indelible images, that—if treated with care—would still be around to look at 120 years into the future. I long for that certainty with today’s digital images.

Don’t get me wrong, I snap iPhone photos of my kids with abandon. I’m a “mobile upload” fiend on Facebook. Me and technology, we’re tight.

But I also worry that those sweet, irreplaceable images of my kids are being held hostage inside my phone and at the mercy of fickle technology that is rooted in planned obsolescence. I want our kids to not only be able to sift through photos of my husband and me as kids, and to look at photos of our wedding (which were, thankfully, taken with “old-school” technology), but also of themselves in the early moments of their lives and throughout their childhood. I worry the current technology for storing images will be obsolete by the time our kids are grown. What do we do if tomorrow’s new-fangled technology is unable to view the memories we’re making today?

 

 


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