SINCE THE Eastman Kodak Company went into the snapshot-photography business back in the late 1880s, Americans have been obsessed with recording their daily lives and special occasions on film. An exhibit called "Picture Taken: Anonymous Snapshot Photographs," currently on display at the Panopticon Gallery, on Moody Street in Waltham, celebrates the common-photo passion and raises some provocative cultural questions. In press-related materials, the show's curator, Clare Goldsmith, suggests the intuitive - that personal photographs provide a "sustaining and consoling bridge" in the face of mortality. "Our images," she writes, "evidence of our existence, will live on and serve as documents and visual journals of our lives."
It's true. Our culture and our attics are cluttered with personal visual legacies. Years ago, while working with the Polaroid Corporation - a company with a healthy stake in sustaining the snapshot biz - I collected and studied vintage snapshots and determined they were, in their often-clumsily-taken way, a far more convincing document of times past than were the formal studio portraits that families take the most pains to preserve.
More recently, I've had the misfortune of cleaning out my parents' home. We were ever a photographic (if not photogenic) family, and I've spent several dusty weeks poring through hundreds of pounds of personal images: some lovingly mounted in albums, most stored in the original envelopes in which they returned from the drugstore.
It's overwhelming. What do you do with them all, besides smile at them and put them back in their yellowing envelopes to await the next generation of browsers, and the next, until the identities of the subjects are lost in time and the images no longer especially precious to anyone?
Well, nothing lasts forever, so you probably shouldn't expect the glory of your 18th-birthday bash to thrill anybody in the 23rd century. But for the (relative) present, your memories are worth preserving, and digital photography offers an opportunity to extend their life - and your legend.
Even when the photo-gear marketers accomplish switching consumers to digital-camera use (and the change is coming soon), the world will still be full of images on film and paper. Printing images from film may become as inconvenient as reading five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy discs; fortunately, it's remarkably simple to scan images from prints or negatives and convert them to digital format. Moreover, the conversion gives you the chance to improve or restore the quality of the original.
Scanners, available separately at prices starting below $100 and in combination with many multi-function computer/photo printers, are easy to use. In minutes, that faded or mildewed portrait of Uncle Ebert is on screen and almost good as new. What you can do with it - manipulating size, color, brightness, contrast, resolution, tonality, or shape - depends on the imaging software you choose, ranging from pricey and sophisticated professional programs, such as Adobe PhotoShop, to the quick-and-dirty/can't-do-much software packaged with most scanners.
Once scanned, your old snaps will become yet another kind of clutter unless you get them organized. A first bit of advice is to edit before you preserve. Professional photographers take at least 10 shots for every one they actually like. The same is true of amateurs, but they don't necessarily discriminate between good and bad. Lots of snapshots are repetitive or technically flawed, but people tend to hold on to them anyway, once printed. You should set the clunkers aside (go ahead, keep the originals; your grandchildren can throw them out) and concentrate on the images that make visual and contextual sense.
Second, get organized. This is the ideal time to group things in chronological order or in categories - to collate all your birthday pictures or vacation snaps to create a record of your childhood summers. Now that you've survived the years, it can be interesting to watch your progress in sequence of photographs, skipping from one Christmas to the next. These sorts of collections almost never exist in traditional photo albums, in which snaps are grouped by whatever was on a given roll of film. But scanning gives you the chance to re-order things and make your life look downright purposeful. Third, take this opportunity to identify your photos. In the past, some families took the trouble to write on the backs of snapshots, but most lazily assumed they'd remember, leaving posterity in the lurch with an intriguing photo of a stocky man in a bowler hat riding a donkey, but no story to go with it. At the very least, digitizing snapshots lets you name the image files, although UNCLE_ALBERT.JPG may not tell the whole story. What you want to record is something like "Uncle Albert Chesley on holiday in Mexico, April 1935," which takes more space than a file name allows. Some higher-end image-processing software lets you add elaborate captions as pop-ups or even formatted below the picture, but if your program doesn't have such capabilities you can always create a Word-file index to accompany the picture sets. (Yes, it's an effort that involves numbering or otherwise identifying the images and organizing a proper log, but subsequent viewers will thank you.)
Now, the big issue is: how do you store your scanned archive?
Another option, although not designed for storing vintage scans, is the online photo-archive service. A Google search for "digital photo albums" will turn up a mind-boggling selection. The idea behind these services is to replace the drugstore photo-processing system with something more versatile. They work like this: you upload your digital images, directly from your camera, to the service's Web site, where they are stored and displayed as thumbnails or slide shows; you then have the option of ordering digital prints (often at quite-affordable prices, depending on size and quality). Moreover, you can invite your friends to log on to your account and view or order the pictures. It's a nice system, if a bit elaborate, for those who don't want the hassle or equipment expense of printing out their own digital photos. The services also can transfer images onto photo books, calendars, greeting cards, mugs, and other gift items - all the stuff your local photo lab used to do. Some also will use sophisticated image-manipulation software to repair torn, stained, or faded images.
There's nothing preventing you from uploading scanned images from the family hard-copy archive onto these services. And it is an option if you want to share your digitized trove with far-flung relatives. As a permanent system, it may not be as satisfying - these services will not be around for generations, and surely the stored images will expire in time - but in the short term it's a good way of getting your archive project off the ground. (One of the most comprehensive indices of online photo-album services can be found on Yahoo, at this link.)
Failing that, of course, you can find some server space and create your own photo-archive Web site, a sort of visual blog to keep your circle of friends in the loop. The advantage over commercial services is that you have complete control over content and presentation.
Snapshot photography is folk art, and it deserves to be preserved. It's also your personal record of the people, places, and times of your life. Digital photography is making snapshooting an even more effective and durable hobby, but that's no reason to abandon the work that's already been done. Taking the effort to update old treasures into the new medium is worth it. And digitizing your records of Uncle Albert's Mexican romp or Grandma's Easter hat or your high-school-graduation party is the ideal way to not fade away.
Clif Garboden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.