Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Cloud cover isn’t picture perfect

There’s my granddad. Up on the ledge. Legs hanging over. Nearest the American flag. Watching Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in what remains the largest parade in New York City’s history, in June 1945. Celebrating Germany’s surrender in World War II.

I found this picture while combing through old photo albums with my mother. On the back, my grandmother had written a sweet note to her son, my father, who was then serving in the Navy.

My friend is on a similar search for family history. He recently emailed about an upcoming trip to visit an aunt in Florida. “I'm taking a sharpie so she can identify people in her photo albums.”

With photo albums on my mind, I started sorting through my own stash. I removed photos from the “magnetic” albums, where a clear plastic overlay sticks to the page…and, as I found out, also discolors and damages the photos. But I have thousands of photos – from wallet size to 11 x 14 prints – stored in drawers and boxes and photo sleeves. They span my early explorations with cameras right up until I grew bored with snapping the same family celebrations, year after year after year.

Then digital cameras and, even better, smartphones became the tool to use. Where are these pictures stored? In my computer. On CDs. Saved on USB drives. A few uploaded to the cloud.

As I replied to my friend with the sharpie: It’s hard to think digital photos will ever have as much impact as stumbling across the Eisenhower photo. It's too easy to tuck them away in digital storage. “Will next generations take the time to search?”

His short answer: “No.” I think he’s right. While digital photos are certainly searchable, you often don’t know what you’re looking for – or at. And out of sight is certainly out of mind.

Nothing beats sitting shoulder to shoulder on a couch, flipping through pages to reveal long-gone relatives, while teasing out stories of days past. Huddling around a computer (or notepad or other electronic device) just isn’t the same. There are no charming handwritten notes on the back. And one bad swipe, missed click, or timeout and my tech-adverse mother loses interest. 

She still has my late father's computer, on which there are lots of family photos, but she never turns it on. If we want her to see the latest photos, we email them to the local Walgreens, which prints them out and calls her to pick them up.

She only keeps the computer around so my siblings and I can print out boarding passes when we visit. And for that small favor, I am grateful.

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