Dealing with Photographs and Photo Albums

My Uncle Larry was the keeper of the family stories. He not only organized most of the Crocker family gatherings, but he also took hundreds of pictures and developed them into photo slides. From the early 1970s until his death in 2004, my uncle lugged boxes containing trays of photo slides along with his Kodak carousel projector to Christmas gatherings. After we ate a large meal, drank the spiced, spiked eggnog, and exchanged gifts, we gathered to view the slides. Maybe at some families’ gatherings this moment would have been the one when the children fled the scene, but not with me or my fifteen cousins.This was the best part of the holiday. My mother was one of six children, so by the time you added in all the spouses and grandchildren, there was anywhere from thirty to fifty people present to watch the show. My Uncle Larry was a Presbyterian pastor with a keen sense of humor. He set a tone of hilarity that the entire family united behind. I loved sitting cross-legged on whatever floor space I could find and listening to the crossfire of funny comments my aunts and uncles made about each photograph. They laughed at old photos featuring plaid polyester leisure suits, bouffant hairdos, and bell-bottomed pants. We howled when they told the back stories to each of the pictures. They never let pride get in the way; every bad decision was an opportunity for a funny story.

Storytelling remains a high priority for me, but I have never really showcased my photos in a way that brings my children the same joy that I experienced gathered around the slide projector all those Christmases ago. Instead, I had hidden away in a closet 8 boxes of photographs and 16 albums. In addition, there were thousands of pictures stored on Carbonite and on my phone. Most of the albums were not archival quality and the edges were yellowing, the photos inside fading. I had a great deal to do if I wanted to leave a legacy as fun-loving and memorable as the one my Uncle Larry left us.

I started my photo-organizing journey by gathering all of my pictures in one place. In this particular blog I will deal with hard copy photographs and albums, not the digital images saved on my phone or on Carbonite. As with organizing memorabilia (see link), saving everything honors nothing. It is important to sort through photographs and keep only those that are high-quality and meaningful. If you printed out ten almost identical pictures of a sunset, choose your favorite and discard the rest. Also, if the quality is poor, consider letting the picture go. If you hate a photograph of yourself or your child, then happily toss it. In the past, I often printed out multiple copies of my favorite photographs. I kept some duplicates to complete baby books; I tossed the rest. I started with eight photo boxes. (pictures of boxes and photos) When I was done, there were two full boxes with just over 2000 photographs. Also, while I made decisions about which photos to keep, I divided pictures into categories such as family, friends, pets, houses, etc. For the next step in the process, I knew I needed help.

Many full-service local photo labs have gone out of business.They have been replaced by companies that service their customers through mail-order. I was reluctant to send off irreplaceable photos in a box to an unknown location. Items become lost in the mail and boxes can get misplaced at large labs. Besides, I had questions, and I wanted to have them answered by someone that I knew was qualified and responsible. When the large chain lab where I live in Columbia, SC, went out of business, we were fortunate that two of the employees opened their own store. The new co-owners are Keta Forrest and Neese Grant, and the name of their business is Forrest and Grant Photo Imaging. Much of the below information comes from their advice.

According to Neese Grant, both DVDs and USB flash drives are great for storing data, but there are more advantages to USB or thumb drives. It comes down to the quality, how much footage you have to store, and how you want to play them back. Both USB and DVDs are relatively small and easy to transport, but it is easier to scratch DVDs.

The greatest advantages of USBs for preserving photos is that they not only hold larger files than DVDs, but it is easy to add to them. A 2GB thumb drive will hold about a 1000 photographs. A 16GB flash drive will hold approximately 8000 photos and a 256GB will host a whopping 128,000 pictures. A USB can be edited, but DVDs cannot.

Another big disadvantage to DVDs is that as technology advances, DVD players will become harder to find. Most laptop computers do not have the ability to play DVDs anymore, but almost all have a USB port. In addition, most smart televisions will upload, download, and playback footage from a USB if you have the USB connecting cord.

Although I chose not to transfer footage from the DVDs that I already had, I have added all hard copy photographs to a 16GB USB drive. The 2139 photos that I had scanned at the lab only took up 766 Mg of space, leaving 13.6GB of space! Negatives can also be scanned. I provided each of my children with their own thumb drive, and I placed the one I kept in my fireproof lockbox.This should ensure that the images are permanently protected. I keep the actual photographs in acid free photo boxes and store them in a closet in my house.

Ms. Grant also advised me to pull all pictures out of albums that are not lignin and acid-free. You can tell that the albums are defective if the pages are discolored or the photographs are fading. Once photographs begin to fade, they will continue to degrade until barely recognizable. If the pictures are not too faded, they can be enhanced with photoshop at a cost of about $5 per picture. A full restoration cost begins at a pricey $55 and goes up from there. So don’t wait to protect your pictures!

The photo lab owners recommended that before removing pictures from my albums, I scan them first. This is especially important if there is writing in the albums about the pictures. Another option is to take pictures of each page in the album using your cell phone. Once a safe album is purchased, the photos and text can be added with all the information. Or if you choose a more modern approach, then the images and text can be added to an online photo book which can then be printed out in multiple copies for friends and/or family.

Another word of warning, if you decide to immediately remove your pictures from old albums to prevent further degradation, do not put them in plastic bags. Ms. Grant told me that condensation builds up in the bags and this will cause pictures to stick together and even pull off the images. So if you are not going to put the photographs in another album right away, then buy archival quality photo boxes to protect them.

This next piece of advice may seem elementary, but it is one I truly learned the hard way! Store all pictures in a temperature-controlled area away from sun and major changes in heat and moisture. In a move from one house to another, we were so pressed for time that we temporarily stored some of our albums in the attic. One of those albums contained our wedding pictures. It was a year later before we remembered to retrieve the albums, but by that time, all of our professional wedding pictures were destroyed.

Finally, the lab owners emphasized that if you don’t have a full service lab near you and you have to mail your photos out of town to a large lab, then be diligent about getting a tracking number. If there is a problem, the photos can hopefully be retrieved. Also, they suggested not sending all the photographs at once. In other words, don’t put all of your photos in one basket, or box, as the case may be.

My next task will be to make simple but soulful photo books for my children using some of the pictures on the USB drive. In the meantime, my Uncle Larry’s picture is under the glass on my desk. He is kissing his sister, my mom, on the cheek. She is laughing as they stand on the beach of the Carolina coast. He inspires me to protect and share my own family stories.

- Kim Winslow

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