Thursday, June 16, 2016

What do you do with old photos?

Binders circa 1930
My mother asked, “What will you do with all my photographs when I’m gone?”

Being her smart aleck kid, I said, “They’re going with you.”

The joke’s on me, though. After sorting through a small fraction of inventory during her move from house to apartment, I developed a sentimental attachment to quite a few.

The problem is she has several large plastic bins filled with family photos. I don’t know how she collected so many, because I don't recall ever seeing her with camera in hand. My brother thinks digitizing them is the answer. I don’t know if it’s worth the trouble and, even if it was, would we really be able to throw away the old prints?

This is more than a philosophical question for me. I printed my first black & white photos in a small science-class darkroom in junior high. In high school, I converted a closet into a part-time darkroom and continued printing there. For a few years, I worked for a pharmaceutical giant as a photographic specialist. There I furthered my skills printing photographs used, in those pre-PowerPoint days, in business presentations and also for product publicity and scientific test results. One perk of the job was the freedom to print my own work as well.
A recent and rare sighting: 35 mm film on store shelves.

Now I have a walk-in closet packed with slides, contact sheets, negative sleeves, and prints, prints, and more prints. Compounding the problem (or the riches) is the fact my husband is an avid photographer, and so we also have boxes of prints cataloguing his early years of documenting events for family and friends. If it weren’t for digital photography, we would have had to build an addition years ago to hold our growing collection of images.

Lately, I’ve taken to giving old photos to the people who are in them. I don’t know if I’m doing them any favors, as most focus on how young they used to look 20, 25, even 30 years ago. Seems no one likes to be reminded about time marching on.

And so my closet shelves will continue to groan under the weight of boxes of memories of years past, barely lightened by the few photos I manage to give away. If I can avoid adding to the stockpile, and not inherit my mother’s stash of photographs, I will consider myself a very, very lucky girl.

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