Tag Archives: photographs

Caring for Family Photos

She glances at the photo, and the pilot light of memory flickers in her eyes.
~ Frank Deford

Remember that old story about the cobbler’s son having no shoes? I’m often reminded of it when I open the door to the spare closet in my office. You know the one. Everybody has one. If you’re lucky, it’s a drawer or two. If you’re like me, a shelving unit in a closet. I’ve seen the show “Hoarders” and get that there are places far, far worse than my closet. But still. It’s full of things “to be done” –like organizing and caring for my family’s photographs– when that magical moment of having more time comes around.

I mean seriously. I’m an archivist. I spend my days organizing and taking care of other people’s stuff. Good stuff, mind you. Pictures, letters, diaries, scrapbooks, and such. But stuff! So trust me when I say I know how daunting the task of organizing and caring for a collection of family photos and documents can be. Even though I do that as my job, my stack of stuff at home is significant. And don’t even get me started on my digital photo files. *shudder*

What I’ve told myself this week is that trying to do it all as one project is just too much. I’d never even get started if that were the case. The key is to do just that — start. Make a dent, a beginning. Sort, label, take care of ones that are at risk. So I have dutifully purchased some storage boxes and photo sleeves and have begun the long process of organizing and caring for my family photos.

For those of you who might be contemplating the same task, here are a few important tips and tricks from the archives to keep in mind as you tackle the very important task of caring for your family photograph collection:

  • Environment is key.  Keeping those family photographs in a protective environment will go a very long way in helping to preserve them for generations to come.   Oftentimes they get squirreled away in basements or attics, which do not provide a great environment for long-term storage.  Make sure they are stored somewhere that is cool and dry.  Think 65 to 70 degrees, with a humidity as close to 40 percent year-round as possible.  Even worse than a little more heat or humidity are the constant fluctuations.  The back-and-forth, up-and-down changes are very hard on photographs.  Also, try to keep them away from mice and other animals, including pesky insects, which can nibble away the images you are trying to preserve.   And sunlight is a definite no-no!  If you want a picture on the wall, it’s best to get a digital copy and frame that, keeping the original tucked safely away.
  • Handling is critical.  You have probably seen shows like History Detectives or visited an archives or historical society where they use white gloves.  There’s a reason for that!  Fingerprints and the oils they leave behind damage the image of the photograph.  Use care when handling and try to do so by the edges with clean or gloved hands.  Even better, protect the photos by using photo sleeves.  Watch out for things labeled “Archival” or “Archivally safe” that are available for sale, though, as they may not always be the best for long-term storage, despite their labels.  Although more expensive, photo enclosures that have passed the Photographic Activity Test (PAT) are available from archival supply stores like Hollinger, University Products, Light Impressions, and Gaylord (given in no particular order).  But do try to avoid using anything sticky — those awful old magnetic albums, rubber cement, tape, and the like.
  • Labeling is helpful.  If you know any information about the photograph, get it written down!  Carefully pencil the information on the back of the photo, or, even better, label the sleeve that’s protecting it or use a separate piece of acid-free paper.  Names, places, events, dates, or any other pertinent information will be a blessing to those who look at your photographs on down the road.

For more information about caring for your family photographs, please see the information available at the Library of Congress. It’s a terrific resource, with some excellent detailed advice. If you’d like to read more about how archives care for photographic collections, I highly recommend the following two books: Photographs: Archival Care and Management by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, and Bertrand Lavédrine’s A Guide to the Preventative Conservation of Photographic Collections.

And if your mountain of photographs, digital or physical, is threatening to topple over and bury you? Make sure to check out the excellent blog posts over at ArchivesInfo, and especially the one on “Culling Family Photographs.” It has some great advice about how to thin the stack of photographs as part of the process of organizing and caring for your family photos.

So dig in and make a start. You might even find it kind of fun, hopefully. And be sure to share your stories and progress here as you go along. Just think of how happy you’re going to make someone on down the road who can enjoy your pictures all the more because of all your hard work!

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Reading Photographs

While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.

~ Dorothea Lange

I love a good mystery. From my childhood days of reading Nancy Drew to my current fascination with reading good mystery stories and indulging in crime shows on television, I simply adore getting caught up in trying to solve a set of clues. One of the many things I love about my job as an archivist is that I occasionally get to try to solve a mystery. Okay, not really a cool *mystery* like a crime or some unsolved cold case. I wish! But I do run into regular things that come in to us as “unknown” that require a bit of historical detective work. That’s a challenge I enjoy digging in to solve.

The archives I work at deals with a lot of aviation-related items, so we frequently get unidentified aircraft photographs. Thankfully, we have a wonderful crew of volunteers, many retired from spending a lifetime working at the nearby Air Force base, who come in and spend hours identifying aircraft information for us. But the other half of our collections pertain to local and regional history, so we also come into contact with many unidentified local and family history items. Oftentimes, the staff or student responsible for organizing the collection and making it available for researchers gets the task of trying to solve some of these unknowns in the collection. In the spring, I teach a course for undergraduates on working with primary sources in their research projects and presentations. One of the assignments I most enjoy is when we get to working with photographs.

Learning to read photographs is much like reading a good detective story. At first look, there may not be very many clues to help solve the mystery. But sometimes a bit of detective work will help give at least a partial solution to the mystery. By using the type of photograph, items in the photograph, and other sources, a bit of research can oftentimes prove worthwhile in figuring out at least some identifying characteristics. Here are a few of the tips and tricks we use in the archives to help us solve the mysteries of unknown photographs.

What do you see?  This is an obvious but important first step.  What things are in the photograph you’re looking at?  Can they give you any clue as to the date or place the photograph was taken?  If you can identify the kind of photograph you have, that can give you a probable date range for when the picture was taken.  Is it in a case, like a daguerreotype or ambrotype?  Is the photographic material metal like a tintype?  If it is printed on paper, what kind of print might it be?   The Library of Congress has great resources to help with this, including sample photographs and a chronological chart of when different photographic processes were used. Clothing, hairstyles, and objects or scenery in the picture can also help find an approximate date for when the picture was taken. But also look beyond the main subject of the photograph. Sometimes the best clues as to when or where the photograph was taken are hidden in the background or along the edges. This photo of a local business is a great example. We knew from other photographs that were with this one that it was taken in 1905, but by using the calendar hanging on the office wall, we were able to discover that May was the only month in 1905 that started on a Monday!

Why this photograph? Photographs are taken for a reason, so looking at a photograph’s composition can also help in solving photographic mysteries. Why did the photographer chose this angle, this pose, or these items? What about them does the photographer want to show or to hide? What is the context of the photograph and its setting? What happened just before or right after this moment? Is there something missing, things outside the frame of the photo? Here’s a favorite example from my stash of family photographs. Now for those readers who know me personally, it probably comes as no surprise that I have a wee bit of a stubborn streak. One my mother documented in this photograph, where my long-suffering violin instructor was trying to persuade her very stubborn pupil to continue on with her lesson after making a mistake. I like to caption this picture as “Pretty please?”

What else do you have? Are there other photographs of the same people or similar places? Are there letters or diaries or newspaper clippings or any other kind of documents that may help understand the context or subject of the photo? Is there anything in the image that would lead you to other sources of information? One great possibility is to check with a local historical society or archive to see if they have any similar items or other historical materials that may help in your quest. Here is one of my favorite photographs from our collections, an image of four generations of women in a family. Thankfully at some point, someone had identified the women in the photograph, but we didn’t have a date for when it was taken. But, because we knew who was in the picture, we were able to narrow down an approximate time frame by using the known birth date of the youngest girl and the death date of the oldest women, the great-grandmother. As it turned out, there was only a period of a few months when this image could have been taken.

If you are interested in learning more about reading photographs, there are a lot of materials available online. One of the best resources for the conservation and preservation of family photographs and papers is the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NDCC). Also, be sure to find a copy of Maureen A. Taylor’s book, Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photography, an excellent resource to walk you through the steps of working with family photo collections. Finally, there are a lot of fabulous genealogy sites and networks available, and the resources they provide are outstanding. Many public libraries subscribe to Ancestry.com, so if you are not a member, you can still gain access to the millions of resources they have available as well. Local historical societies and family sites are also great resources to contact for help in identifying photographs and documents.

Reading photographs is a challenging and time-consuming thing to do. But if you are on the hunt to identify family photographs, sometimes you can get closer to your goal with a bit of research. A little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either. But after all, anything you can find out about the photograph will be more than where you started. And if you’re like me and love a good mystery to solve? You’ll get addicted to the process.

Have you found some challenging photographs to identify in your family photograph collection?

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A Technology of Memory

All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget. In this – as in other ways – they are the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter remembers. Because each one of us forgets different things, a photo more than a painting may change its meaning according to who is looking at it. ~John Berger

When I pick up a photograph off my stack of old family photos, I’m always curious about why the image was taken, why this moment was chosen to be captured. Oftentimes the answer is easy, as the photograph commemorates some special moment or occasion. But sometimes not. Sometimes it is just a moment. To me, those are the fun photographs, the ones which capture the little moments which often slip by, unnoticed, quickly forgotten. Photographs like those put me into the moment, a time machine to a point in the past. A window on a world long gone.

One part of my work as an archivist is the preservation of historical materials, including photographs. In learning to care for photographs, I’ve done a fair amount of reading about photography in general and especially discussions about photographs and memories. The two are often linked, as in claiming someone has a photographic memory or using one term as a metaphor for the other. I was surprised to discover, however, that there is some debate within some academic circles about the interaction of photographs and memories. Photographs capture a moment in time, freezing those seconds potentially forever. Yet, how does looking at a photograph interact with or even change our memories?

In the early days of photography, author Oliver Wendall Holmes was a photographic enthusiast and enchanted with the permanence of these new photographic images. He also happened to be a Spiritualist, strongly believing that spirits existed within and around the mortal world. Photography, he believed, was yet another way to triumph over the passage of time and even death. He referred to one of the earliest forms of photographs, the daguerrotype, as “a mirror with a memory.” The truthfulness and accuracy of this new technology, he and others believed, was far more reliable than simple human memory. Even George Eastman developed a very poignant marketing slogan for his company’s Kodak film by suggesting that “Kodak doesn’t sell film, it sells memories.”

Some more contemporary historians and other scholars, argue that photographs tend to supersede memory, that the image itself becomes the memory, rather than allowing us to recall the details of the moment the photograph captured. In essence, they suggest, a photograph aids forgetting more than remembering. Susan Sontag, for example, suggested that photographs capture the surface and not the meaning of things, so that in the end, the photograph is the only thing remembered. In a 1997 book Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The Aids Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, Marita Sturken wrote about this topic:

No object is more equated with memory than the camera image, in particular the photograph. Memory appears to reside within the photographic image, to tell its story in response to our gaze…Yet memory does not reside in a photograph, or in any camera image, so much as it is produced by it. The camera image is a technology of memory, a mechanism through which one can construct the past and situate it in the present. Images have the capacity to create, interfere with, and trouble the memories we hold as individuals and as a nation. They can lend shape to histories and personal stories, often providing the material evidence on which claims of truth are based, yet they also posses the capacity to capture the unattainable.


In part, I think that idea is true, especially when talking about iconic photographs, images which define national moments and memories. Think here of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, or the twin towers on September 11, 2001. Photographs like that do capture the memory of the moment, so much so that seeing the image recreates the feelings and emotions of the moment. Yet those feelings sometimes get refined, condensed, to just that moment, so that memories of a series of moments or events are centered on the one captured, the one given permanence. It becomes the thing remembered. In this age of digital prints, easy to take and easy to delete, questions now turn to how the newest round of photographic technology will change how life in the twenty-first century will be remembered. This is especially true when talking about images which have been digitally altered — another whole question about photographic reality.

As I pull out a box of family photographs and begin sifting through a particular set of photographs and memories, I think about the pictures and what I remember. Sometimes I know the photograph itself is just the object — they are of people I never met, gone before I was ever around, or of places I never visited. But I remember stories I heard about them, oftentimes told to me while holding that very same picture in my hands. As I turn the pages of sometimes ragged scrapbooks, I find pictures of vacations or people that I did visit or know, and, for a moment, I am right back in the moment of that picture, feeling the wash of ocean against my legs or hearing my grandmother’s whistling as she sat next to me on the porch.

Is the photograph the memory, or is memory larger than an image?

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Monday Moments: Photographs & Memories

Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you
~ Jim Croce
“Photographs and Memories”

What an amazing surprise to find my blog post on “Summer Road Trips” featured on the front page at “Freshly Pressed” on WordPress all weekend! Definitely a great way to start a Monday! Thanks so much for all the visits and thoughtful comments. I loved reading all of your road trip memories and ideas! Also, a warm welcome to all my new subscribers to Second Memory. I really appreciate you signing on for the ride, and I hope you enjoy the time you spend here.

We finally got a small break in the warm summer weather after more than a week spent in 90-degree temperatures and steamy humidity. Our local meteorologist kept calling it “air you can wear,” and she was right! But as I looked at the calendar noting the weather, I was also reminded that this is the last week of July — summer is quickly passing. I even saw the first “Back-to-School” sale in a store over the weekend. That means my summer project list needs a few more things crossed off before the rest of summer disappears as quickly as the first half has gone by.

One of those tasks I always promise myself to take care of is my stash of photographs, old and new. Thanks to my very computer-savvy husband, our digital images are categorized, stored, and backed up. Not so much our regular photographs.

So this week, we’re tackling family photographs – here on the blog and at home. Feel free to dig out your pile or box or crate and share the fun with us — the crazy strange ones as well as the poignant ones of things and people no longer around us.

Jim Croce’s “Photographs and Memories” says it best, even almost forty years later.

After all, moments to remember are what keeping photographs is all about, isn’t it?

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Delight

Lynda with violin

Me, approximately age 5

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes along.
~Samuel Butler, “Speech at the Somerville Club,” 27 February 1895

This past weekend I had the occasion to do something delightful.  Absolutely delightful.  Part of what made it so was the unexpectedness of it all.

A colleague and I drove a few hours away to a neighboring state to attend a one-day conference.  We volunteered to give up a Saturday and go, of our own choosing and at our own cost, just because it sounded fun.  And because we really wanted, yes even needed, a girls’ day out.  We talked and laughed and talked some more.  All the way there, through lunch, and back again.  It was a good day out.

After the conference, we had an extra hour or so to look around.  The meeting was held at the Indiana Historical Society, a relatively new facility located in the heart of Indianapolis.  In creating a showcase for the best of Indiana history, it was a masterfully designed example of historical interpretation at its most current.  The most impressive sections were the rooms created as part of the “You Are There” exhibits.  The institution truly makes photographs come to life.  You think I’m kidding.  I’m not.  There are four rooms, each telling a different story, from a different moment in time.  The “door” to the room is water vapor, with a photograph projected onto it.  When you enter the staged scene, you literally walk through the photograph, which then comes to full three-dimensional life before your eyes.  You step into the world of the photograph.  You are there.  Historical interpreters, well-trained at their craft, interact with you in the moment captured in the photograph.  The rooms change periodically.  One of the newest had just opened a few weeks earlier.  It was 1968, and Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis to give a speech.  But he didn’t give the one he intended to, because it was also the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  Kennedy gave a speech that changed lives, and this exhibit demonstrates how and why.

That scene was intriguing.  The living history participants were eager, lively.  My colleague and I, not so much.  I had a hard time “being” historical.  Odd, for a history major, but I’m used to seeing history as just that – history, the past, behind me.  Not there in my face, alive, breathing.

That changed in the second room we visited.  With our time drawing to a close as the museum ended its Saturday hours, we had to skip two rooms.  We ended up in one tucked away on the second floor of the building.  The room was set in 1914, in Indianapolis, the shop of a German immigrant.  A violin maker and his wife, with his wife’s sister visiting them.  I was enchanted.  Delighted.  Absorbed.  I fell into the scene as though born for it, chatting with the wife about violin bridges that were available for sale.  Another two-some, a father and daughter from the look of them, were talking to the violin maker himself.  The girl was playing.  Beautifully.  My fingers itched, a long familiar, but long absent itch.  I wanted to play.

You see, not many people know that a long time ago, I played the violin.  Studied it, worked at it, drilled at it.  In all honesty, I never really “played” the violin.  It was far too serious to call it that.  I played before I could read, books or music.  I played before I remember doing anything else, even playing.  According to family stories, I was shy.  I know, I know, hard to believe now, yes?  But I was.  I have the newspaper headline to prove it:  Shy 3-Year-Old Girl Learns Violin.  My parents firmly believed that all their children needed to be able to play at least one musical instrument.  My oldest brother played violin and guitar, and he sang.  My middle brother played trumpet and piano, and still has a singing voice to be envied, one he used often in community theater work.  My sister played piano and guitar, sang like an angel, and composed music as well.  I had nothing.  But then again, I was only three.  They chose the violin.  Evidently I was fascinated by watching my older brother, or so I was told.  At the age of three, I began professional lessons, training with a husband and wife teaching team.  Practiced daily, memorized, trained, and performed.  I have articles and clippings, blue ribbons and credits, from various events and recitals. By the time I was in high school, I was getting paid to play, at weddings, at local events, and with a professional orchestra in a nearby town.  I spent 7 years with the orchestra, all through high school and college.  A variety of stars performed with the orchestra, including Doc Severinson, Shari Lewis (and Lambchop), and Wynton Marsalis to name but a few.  But after college, I walked away, knowing that despite my love for it, I didn’t want to make a music career into my life.  Despite spending nearly twenty years at it already.  I hardly ever touched my violin again.  But I still have one.  Tucked away, far in the back of some dim closet, where I keep the things I can’t bear to look at or to part with, there in the dark.

The violin maker overheard me tell his wife that I appreciated the offer, but didn’t want to play.  “Are you disparaging my violins?  The work of my hands?” he asked, playing the offended role to the hilt.  “No,” I said.  “I’m disparaging the player.”  He smiled, a gentle twinkle in his elderly blue eyes.  “Come.  You play.”  He ran his hand down a line of his hand-crafted instruments hanging from the wall.  “I have just the one for you.”   The finish on the wood glinted like caramel in the sun.  The rosin on the bow as he prepared it danced at my nose with remembered sensations.  “Try.”  So I did.  I tucked the instrument under my chin, swinging my hand into position as though I still did this every day.  My right hand curved slightly over the grip of the bow, flexing against the pressure as it touched the strings.  “Try.”  He stepped away, watching.  I closed my eyes and did what came naturally – I ran my scales, up and down, trilling and whistling.  It didn’t matter that there were no markings on the fingerboard; my fingers knew exactly where to fall.  First position, second, even third.  Up and down, back and forth.  A slip of vibrato into a note or two as I segued into an old favorite piece.  When finished, I opened my eyes, catching the soft smile of the violin maker.  “Your form is most excellent, as is your ear. You are welcome to play one of my violins whenever you would like.”  I smiled and said my thanks as I handed him back his violin.

We got stalled in traffic on the way out of town, moving less than five miles in the first hour on the road.  I called my husband to let him know we would be later than planned.  “How was it?” he asked.  “Delightful,” I said.  “Just delightful.”

Oftentimes for me, the most delightful things are the ones that find me unawares, an unexpected touch of joy.  How about you?  What delights you, brings you an unexpected moment of joy?

[Note: This post is #4 of 26 of the April A-to-Z Challenge.  Please see the button at the lower left of the page for more information.]

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