Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Climbing the Photograph Mountain

Here I sit, labeling old photos.  Again.  I feel like I will grow old and feeble, right here, pen in hand. I have a large box of them, but considering that I started out with at least 5 large boxes of them, I will not complain.  In the overall scheme of things, I am nearly done.

All of these photos came from my grandmother's massive photo collection, and that of my mother's as well (the apple didn't fall far from the tree...)  Some have been put into pages, some have been somewhat sorted and stuffed into envelopes, and many are loose.

Over the years, I've become the owner of photos featuring faces I don't recognize, and always thought it was a pity that the subject in the photo would remain a mystery, for all of posterity.

As I started going through this mountain of pictures, I noticed a common trend.  They either had no identification on the back, or would have something written like "Me and Dad."  Worse yet, if Grandma had made copies for someone, she would write *their* name on the back.  All this is fine if everyone already recognizes who is in the photo, but one day I had the realization that if I drop dead tomorrow, there are very few people left who could identify these images. So, I stacked up the boxes, took a deep breath, and started plugging away.

Part way through, I realized that I wasn't being very complete.  My goal was to enable my descendants to not only know the names of the people, but the circumstances of the photo.  I wanted them to know the people who came before.  So I made a list of things I thought would be helpful when labeling.

1) Use full names.  "Mom," "Kevin," etc. won't necessarily help your descendants years from now.
2) Date the photos, if possible, or at least a rough guess ("1987?")
3) Identify the location ("Phoenix, AZ").  Also, with the really old photos, I often wondered whose beautiful home that was in the background, especially if I noticed family heirlooms, so now I note that as well if I can.
4) Note if there was a particular event that inspired the photo ("Aunt June's visit to South Dakota")
5) Include relationships.  I realized while identifying the two older ladies in one photo, that my descendants might recognize one name as their great grandmother, but would not know that the other woman was her sister.

In short, I am trying to inscribe these photos as if I'm describing them to a stranger - because at some point in the future, I very well may be.  Fifty years from now, the person looking at it may have no idea they're looking at an ancestor.  Also, don't assume pictures from the same event are going to stay together.  Label each as if it were a "stand-alone" photo, because some day it might me.

I'll be the first to admit that all this is a little overwhelming.  But if I don't do it, it isn't going to happen.  My kids don't recognize most of these people, so once I'm gone, these photos will be essentially worthless to my family.  And I don't want any of these precious people in the photographs to be forgotten.