Sorting Through Things

A few years ago, on a visit to see my mother out in Oregon, we spent some time with her going through boxes of photos. I wasn’t quite sure what we would find, or even what to expect amidst that pile of envelopes, sleeves of brittle negatives, and assorted black and white memories. She’d had them stored away for years, pictures taken during her and my Dad’s honeymoon; photos from our brief time spent on the ranch in Smith Valley, Nevada; our first house in Sparks, Nevada, three boys playing in the yard. There were photos of a parade my brother and I marched in; for some reason we are wearing Hawaiian outfits, paper leis over our tshirts and cut-off jeans. I like to think of this one as the Sparks, Nevada answer to the Pasadena Rose Bowl Parade! *update 08/31/2021 Jack’s Carnival History page for more info on this event.

Children marching in parade 1961
Ron marching in children’s parade, 1961 Sparks NV

There were a number of photos even older than these. Pictures of a blended family taken during the early 1930s, my Mother posing with three of her siblings in front of their home in Colorado before their move to Southern California. The girls are wearing light-colored dresses, bunched-up socks over black leather shoes, my Uncle Robert sits quietly with his hands folded in his lap. Mom wears a large, quite large, bow in her hair as she appears to study her nails. My Grandmother doesn’t appear in any of these. I have to imagine she was the photographer in the family as my Mom would later be in ours. 

Four of seven children sitting on rock wall
Three boys sitting on a piano bench, black white
Three boys at the piano, 1958

My brothers and I were not immune to posing for family photos. This might have been Easter, I can’t think of any other reason three youngsters would be dressed in their finest jackets sporting bow ties. Though the photo is dated August 1958, my Dad was known for taking his time dropping off film to be developed and printed. Quite a few of the photos have handwritten details on the back of them, dates or locations written to help identify them years later I suspect. It’s a habit I never acquired and wished I had. Today I rely on filing digital images in online folders with the date taken, trusting that the meta data stored with each photo will still be available years from now. 

I had hoped to piece together more of our family’s history as we browsed through Mom’s collection. Not surprisingly, Mom remembered many details. The photos of my Dad and her posing with their 1936 Dodge Coupe at the Chandelier Tree in Leggett, California I found particularly interesting. The tree is still standing and many years back, my wife and son and I drove through it, stopping in the middle of the tree to take the same shot. Had I known of these photos at the time, I would surely have tried to recreate the look, Dad leaning casually back against the trunk of the tree, one leg resting on the car’s fender.

It seems we have inadvertently taken many of the same photos as did my folks back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. California and Nevada have many natural and man-made sites that lend themselves to photo memorialization and there are several my family has visited. Hoover Dam (known to many when I was growing up in Nevada as Boulder Dam) is surely the most famous of the Nevada landmarks, and one that my folks had visited in 1949. It was many years later that friends and I visited the same place, taking nearly the same photo. Even our recent trip to San Francisco calls back to a snapshot my Mom made thru the windshield of their car while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge.

I had seen a trend on Facebook for a time that really caught my attention. Individuals would hold up an old photo—perhaps a faded Polaroid or a black and white print—of a location from some time in the past, superimposed over the same location now in the present. The passage of time caught between the two realities, separated by decades in some cases, has fascinated me. The photos seemingly bookend moments in a person’s life and invite comparisons and contrasts that we don’t normally expect to see.

One thing has become abundantly clear dash I have been browsing through these past moments captured on film. What to do with or how to organize what we have? And where are the “missing” photos? We have boxes of photos, some in black and white, most in color. We have several binders of Kodachrome slides in plastic sleeves (no dates or other identification); we have a number of photo CDs but they seem to be clustered around just a few years time; and increasingly, we have digital images scattered everywhere.

Photo CD
Kodak photo CD 2003

Shutterfly sends me an update periodically. This week it was: “Remember these memories from 13 years ago? Hi Ron, we thought you’d like to press rewind and relive these times.” And it seems my Apple photo account likes to do the same thing with the images I have stored on (in ?) the cloud.

I’ve got images stored on my computer (currently a Mac Mini) that have been transferred from the last four computers I’ve owned. I’ve got images stored on a number of external hard drives, some of which no longer work. And I have a lot of images on “read/write” CDs that I burned off back in the early 2000s when I switched over to a digital camera. Some of those CDs are no longer readable for whatever reason. Who knows what they contain. My plan to scan and digitize our remaining “hard copy” photos has been dealt a minor setback by the very medium itself. Once the photos are digitized, do I throw away the originals? Or pack them away somewhere, safe and secure for my kids to find one day?

Have we really found it easier to switch formats, saving our family photos on CDs, hard drives, or parked somewhere online? Do we view them any more often, or are they tucked away and forgotten like the boxes of photo albums I have downstairs?

Mom holding black white photo
Mom sorting through a pile of black and white photos

I haven’t found an easy answer for any of this, though early on I did decide to save all the images I transferred from my digital cameras with a unique ID based on the transfer date, for instance 20210825-001. But oh my, the images do start to accumulate! As I start to digitize many of our old photos, the process has begun to restore a sense of order to the beast, though most are still in photo boxes tucked away in plastic storage bins.

More recently I’ve begun to have photo books printed (Shutterfly.com) of our vacations and special memories. Our recent vacation to Nevada became a book as did my Mom’s 90th birthday celebration. Hopefully they will serve as a convenient way to browse old memories and a place to collect, store, and maybe one day pass on the photos we are taking now. They are certainly more attractive than a stack of hard drives sitting in the bookshelves!

High Grade Kodak finishing, available through Hilbig’s Pharmacy in San Bernardino, CA 1948

A Google search for “how to organize home photos” yielded about 369,000,000 results. Below are a few you might find useful in taking on your own projects. Good luck with that closet full of boxes!

Photography Life ideas for organizing your photos

New York Times article on organizing your photos

From the Library of Congress, a guide to preserving and caring for your photography originals: https://www.loc.gov/preservation/care/photo.html

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s