Sorting Family Photos

Johnny over at Granola Shotgun once described the phenomenon of alleged minimalists with secret troves of STUFF. For us that secret untidiness resided in a backyard shed. Wanting to put that shed to better use, Kelly and I decided to tackle boxes of family photos and home movies.

It was emotionally wrenching for me as my mom’s death was just two years ago. I miss both my parents and think about them every day but we don’t have the room in our tiny house to hold on to every photo, slide, super 8 film and video tape. While I was able to get rid of duplicate photos and pictures of people I can’t identify, I ended up stopping because the process just made me too sad.

An unintentional history of photography lesson
What played out as I went through over 150 years worth of photos was a short history of photography. I have just a few Victorian era photos consisting of studio portraits as well as shots of my paternal great-grandparent’s general store in Stockton, California. With the advent of snapshot photography in the early 20th century there’s more photos, but I suspect photography was still relatively expensive. The early 20th century snapshots seem more carefully posed than what comes later when photography gets cheaper. There’s a lot more photos from the 1970s and 80s but the quality of many of those photos in terms of composition and lighting gets poorer. And color photos from this period have faded badly, whereas the black and white photos from the early 20th century still look as good as new. The last photos I have are of friends taken in the 1990s. Then everything goes digital. From this digital period I have thousands of pictures on a no longer functioning disc drive that I have yet to pay to have recovered. Since formats change and drives fail, we could have a black hole in the history of photography someday, what librarians refer to as a “digital dark age.”

But what to do with all those boxes of photos and home movies? We don’t have kids or any other relatives interested in keeping them after we pass on. Kelly went through her family photos, picked out the best and put them in a slim volume. I don’t know if I’m ready for this. I could take all those photos, slides and movies to Costco and have them digitized. Librarians suggest keeping a digital copy of photos at home, with a friend and in the cloud (Though I feel some guilt about the energy used for cloud storage of photos I might not look at). And they don’t’ suggest throwing out the originals. Lacking a way to project the films and slides, digitizing is the only way that I’ll be able to see them.

But there’s a funny way in which grief works. With the photos in the shed I could put off dealing with the loss of my parents by keeping that grief at a distance, in a kind of stasis, locked away in a shed I rarely visit. There’s a way in which simply digitizing everything would be kind of the same in that I don’t think I’d ever go though that whole archive of images. Perhaps it would be better to face my grief and do what Kelly did and curate a selection of the best photos. Every year around the All Saints/All Souls weekend I could spend some time reflecting on that hypothetical album.

I’m curious how you, our readers, have tacked this problem. Have you digitized? How are you dealing with that mountain of digital images? Do you have kids and if so how does that change the equation?

Leave a comment


  1. My parents have a chest of photos from my grandfather when he died. I don’t believe they’ve gone through it yet as I’m considered the genealogist in the family and eventually they wanted my help. I would love to go through and catalog everything.

    Personally, I’m currently going through hard drives looking for photos of a friend’s dog we pet-sat for nearly 1.5 years while she did some traveling. That dog passed last spring and now she wants to create an album. a lot of these photos I’m finding (much more beyond the dog photos) I put up on Flickr and another service in the early to mid 2000s but I’m finding many I simply forgot about. I still use Flick as my catch-all for my photos but am finding myself needing to back log and create albums since I had my son 5 years ago. I used to scrapbook but no longer have the time or desire for that so photobooks will be what gets made at some point. Or printing it all out and throwing them into albums—which are increasingly hard to find, too. I remember Michaels would have albums for cheap in big bins going back even 10 years ago. now? hard to find anywhere.

    Also, since my blog is basically how I’ve written about my life for 17.5 years, I should probably turn those into some kind of book for myself before a digital apocalypse happens!

    Curious to see what everyone else says.

  2. I essentially starting my archiving project because we had friends who had thousands of photos on one hard drive and when it failed they lost everything. I began scanning a roll of negatives once every day or two, and also going to through the mess of thousands of digital photos my family took over the past few years and drastically editing them down. When no opportunity cost in developing photos exists, one ends up with massive numbers of digital files. As an aside, I think most people who THINK they are preserving their digital photos are not doing so at all. Case in point a friend asked me to help him deconflict all of the digital photos his family had taken. Over 3 days we found that every time one service filled up, like a hard drive, drop box, etc, family members just subscribed to a new cloud service and they had 37K photos on five cloud services and three hard drives. About 25K of these photos were duplicates but with conflicting metadata and it was a mess. They have all their photos but some of the cloud services messed up the metadata and now they have thousands of photos that are impractical of view because there is no effective way to organize them. I’ve enforced on my family strict rules on how we take digital photos, edit, name, and preserve to cloud.

    For myself, I also scanned at high res slides, negatives, as well as written documentation of our family as JPGs to provide a record of where and when the photos were taken. At the same time I digitized all VHS tapes, and some were too deteriorated to watch after 20 years. A few things I’ve learned:

    -For archival purposes, places like Costco will provide an adequate scan but not for archival purposes.
    -Scan at highest resolution with an IR scanner to remove dust. I don’t bother to correct more details, that will be up to my children or grandchildren but I’ll give them the highest quality TIFF possible.
    -Any time one scans slides or negatives, use a metadata utility to manually assign the best guess date and GPS. Since you’ll presumably have to bring the pictures into a database like Lightroom or Photos, this step is time consuming but a huge labor saver when organizing. I really can’t stress how important this is, otherwise you’ll end up with digital photos taken in 2017 next to photos from 1938 because the metadata will show the date they were scanned. A few hundred photos are manageable in a folder. When one has 40K pictures like myself, a database is required to make sense of the archive.
    -Manually assign a name to each and every photo, don’t just leave the camera default. Time consuming, but then someone in the future will be able to know what the photo is in the event the library or metadata is corrupted. In the name put the location and names of people left to right.
    -Assign names so that all photos will auto-organize chronologically in a folder, since for backup you are doing a raw export of the files from the database for backup. An example would be, 1941-12-09-hi-pearl-harbor-wwii-hospital-visit-john-smith-unknown-jack-munroe. There are batch naming utilities for Windows and Mac that help with this process.
    -Assigning a name to each file makes it easy to make queries to find individual people.
    -Edit down scans and digital photos ruthlessly.
    -Don’t toss our old photos that can be easily color and exposure corrected.
    -Backup at home to two external drives, to a cloud service only if the service preserves the full resolution and EXIF, and then to an off site location like relatives on Blu-Ray or DVD.
    -Don’t backup video or photos to regular burnable DVDs as the organic substrate will break down in a few years. Don’t use stickers or markers on DVDs at it will also destroy the disk. Get an M-Disk burner and use M-Disk media. It uses a ceramic substrate and is advertised to have a lifespan of several hundred years. Many burners are M compatible and the media is minimally more expensive than regular DVDs. The DVDs or Blu-Ray M-Disks can all be read in regular players.
    -Finally, DON’T throw out the original film media. Keep it along with any documentation and the M-Disk backups. My grandmother took many high quality films in the 40s, then had them digitized to VHS in the 90s. Unfortunately, my mother then threw out of original films once she had VHS tapes and most of those tapes can no longer be viewed. Films can be digitally processed and corrected by companies who specialize in this.

  3. Going through photos like this is so emotional. I do agree that digitizing mountains of material may functionally be the same as leaving it all in a shed.

    Twice in my life I’ve made photo albums of beloved family dogs after they were put down. The first one involved a mix of getting printed photographs scanned and reprinted, and having prints made of digital photos. The second one was years later, and all the images were digital to start with, so those just needed to be printed. In each case, the process of selecting photos was the thing that was difficult and time consuming, and very much helped me process my grief. And being able to pull those albums off the shelf occasionally helps me keep the memories alive.

  4. My parents died in ’13 and ’17 and I still haven’t gone through anything of theirs. Like you, it can be too painful and overwhelming. Dad’s photos start when he was in the SoPacific in WWII, and I have photos starting with marriage and kids in 1980. I don’t want to leave everything to our girls, nor do I have the time or equipment to adequately scan photos myself. Right now I am concentrating on sorting our photos into boxes by year or decade.

    When it comes to digitizing, has anyone ever sent their photos/slides out to be scanned by a third party company? I’m curious if that is an option we should consider. I’d be interested in a quality company anywhere in SoCal.

    Digitizing is this difficult dilemma for me. I know I should, in order to preserve the photo/slide integrity and share with our kids, but I’m also trying to live in a smaller space. Even if I digitized everything, I still should/have to keep the originals, so I don’t free up any space. Anyone have thoughts on that?

  5. Interesting post.
    I have less than 10 printed photos of my father, my son’s grandfather, and I haven’t seen him since I was 10 in 1984. They are kept in a plastic container in my closet along with my baby pictures and pictures of my life prior to 2002.

    I’ve gone digital as well, and I worry about hard drives and disc failures as well. I have thousands of pictures that need to be printed, but I will not print all of them just some, and I am not ready to do that.

    To this day, I use a digital camera and a film camera (mostly black and white) on trips, everyday life, or artistic whims. I have about 50 rolls of film to develop in my fridge now. I use old film cameras because they are fun and, engaging. Also, when I shoot film, I have 36 frames and not all are good, and I only print the best, but I get a film strip to archive.

    The point of my response is that I cherish the small amount of pictures I have of my childhood. Even though, I have thousands of picture of my son, I don’t think it’s necessary to print them all, but I’m pretty sure he will enjoy looking at them in the future. So, print, frame, save, backup (hard drives, SD cards, CD-R) and store.

    I enjoy your post, and I love the YouTube about your home, maybe someday we’ll be able to afford a home, and it’ll be a place of production.

  6. Oh man, how timely, this is something that’s really been on my mind, digitization… my son just turned one last week, and every photo we have of him is digital. I was thinking today as I was putting together an online album of his first birthday party to send to my parents, what happens if Shutterfly suddenly goes out of business? Do all my photos just disappear? This idea shot me through with anxiety, visual traces of my life from the past 10-15 years just… gone. I’ve started thinking that I might do what Kelly did, with my digital photos, pick out the best, print them, and make albums.
    I don’t have a lot of printed photos here where I live. Both of my parents are still living, and they have the big stashes of photos, which I look through at practically every visit (2-3 times a year). I do have a tendency to hang on to certain things — letters from my grandmother, which I don’t read but which I can’t part with. (Plus she was a very lazy letter writer, so each one I got felt precious.) I also have some random photos that I’ve swiped from my parents. Again I don’t look at them, but I like to have them. The fact that I have a kid definitely influences this to a degree, because I want him to see his ancestors.

  7. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments! I’ve received more by email. It just occurred to me that the next episode of the podcast should be devoted to this topic. I’m thinking of interviewing a librarian who specializes in archiving photos. Stay tuned.

  8. I am in the process of getting photos in one place, organized and taking up less space. I have been looking at a flatbed scanner in Office Max and a little machine on the internet that holds slides and negatives. Both machine transfer to the laptop. I put these on a flashdrive, and on disc and email to children, giving them access to my picture.

    After just lately losing many photos, I am frantic to save what I have left.

    My parents died in 91 and 93. I have had pictures of them on display every day since. I have no fear of looking into boxes of pictures and seeing them for the first time in years. It is a comfort to me to be able to see them every day.

  9. Tangentially related: We live in the Berkeley Hills, in one of the high-danger fire zones. For the last few weeks, in and out of the power outages, we’ve been storing our (un-digitized, un-archived) analog photos in the car, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. I backed up all digital photos to duplicate hard drives and drop-box. One of those hard-drives is on my person at all times, in case the neighborhood burns down when I’m not home.

    Nothing like the threat of fire to force you into considering how to save the pictures!

  10. I don’t talk to my mum and my dad is dead so no childhood photos. My house burnt down so no adult photos. My mobile phone had photos on it and it crashed so no photos (including those of the burnt out house). The only photos I actually would like to have are of my 3 years whilst in the Royal Australian Air Force.
    Claire in Melbourne Australia

  11. All for it, thank you so much for posting this.

    After my parents are gone I am going to have to do the same.

    I like the idea of scheduling it every year at this time in order to process.

    What better season than this time of remembrance for what is gone and celebration for what we have received.

    I am going to have to write my own post now as a match to my Mayday one.


  12. Pingback: October 31, Samhain, Grief, and Photographs • Backyard Ecosystem

  13. Erik,
    You are awesome and kind as always.

    I am glad you liked the post and the wet plate photograph of me.

    I have even used the photograph in my Tinder profile when I am dating.

    I had gotten out of the habit of checking in on your blog, I will try to get back into that excellent habit. It seems we are so often on the same mental page.

    My Webmistress did a major update to the look of BE and I am suddenly writing for it again as well as going back through the old articles and updating them. It has been good getting my hands dirty in the virtual world again.


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