What I learned from a 20 pound box of vintage family photos

Over Christmas, I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with my whole family to sort through one of several giant boxes full of disorganized family photos from the 80s and 90s. It was an evening of laughing till we cried, making fun of my mom’s hairstyles over the years, and remembering the stories and details of years past that had all but slipped away.

  Let's pause for a moment to appreciate how meta this self-portrait photo of a photographer, her photographer dad, and their family looking through old photos is.

Let's pause for a moment to appreciate how meta this self-portrait photo of a photographer, her photographer dad, and their family looking through old photos is.

This experience was especially cathartic to me as a photographer who specializes in helping families write and preserve their family histories visually. Follow along below for the most valuable lessons I learned from this experience.

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1.     The memories are contained in the ones on display. There are a few photos from my childhood that I know so well that they’re almost a part of me. The memories are as clear as though they had just happened yesterday (and guess what: most of them took place 20 or 30 years ago). It turns out it’s not just about which ones contain the most “memorable” scene; it’s about which ones are available to view and enjoy. They are framed and scattered about my parents’ home, and each time I look at one, it brings me right back – if not to my own first-hand memory, then the just-as-good second-hand story that has layered so deeply in my brain from having been told so many times – all jogged by a printed photo. At our family photo night, we uncovered a treasure trove of images that SHOULD be on the walls or in coffee table books -- ones that are dripping with history waiting to be re-memorized by all of us.

  A whole book's worth of personal family stories is contained in these images. A full chapter could be about fashion and hair choices of the 80s.

A whole book's worth of personal family stories is contained in these images. A full chapter could be about fashion and hair choices of the 80s.

2.     Curate, curate, curate. Sitting down with a well-planned album or collection of favorite prints is easy and enjoyable; weeding through a box (or, for the next generation: hard drive) with thousands of images is prohibitively difficult and time-consuming. Consider the fact that it's taken my family 10 years to make this happen, and we're a family of TWO photographers.

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3.     A single great image can bring back a whole era. Instead of stressing about capturing every moment or every milestone, I’m beginning to appreciate the value of a single great image – one that can act as a time capsule for that moment in time. For me, the key elements are the people, the location, and the situation. When composed well, the combo of these three can tell more stories than a whole hard drive of posed family photos.

  OK, so this isn't even the greatest photo. But look at my parents and their best friends, cutting loose at dad and his pal's birthday party. That champagne cap on my uncle's head and the streamers in their pockets remind me that they really knew how to party at our age, and those plaid shirts bring me back to the textures and feels of my childhood summers.

OK, so this isn't even the greatest photo. But look at my parents and their best friends, cutting loose at dad and his pal's birthday party. That champagne cap on my uncle's head and the streamers in their pockets remind me that they really knew how to party at our age, and those plaid shirts bring me back to the textures and feels of my childhood summers.

4.     Photos with context WIN. I’ll never stop talking about this one. An image of smiling faces is worth making and worth enjoying, but it can’t jog memories and trigger a dozen stories like a documentary image can. When flipping through this giant box with my family, we occasionally stopped to laugh at my mom’s amazing perm or the way I’d roll my eyes at the camera as a pre-teen. But the photos that made us all lean in and think “why is this photo in a box and not on display?” were the ones with context about the time, place, and mood, as well as the people we were and the relationships we had.

  Me and my mom in 1984, big pimpin' in our 1978 Buick LeSabre. Having just arrived in the States from Poland, we were on a cross-country road trip to see what this great nation was made of. It was such a boat that my 5'3" mom could take naps fully stretched out in the back seat as we cruised along.

Me and my mom in 1984, big pimpin' in our 1978 Buick LeSabre. Having just arrived in the States from Poland, we were on a cross-country road trip to see what this great nation was made of. It was such a boat that my 5'3" mom could take naps fully stretched out in the back seat as we cruised along.

5.     if they’re not accessible, you can’t enjoy them. I mentioned this above already, but it’s worth mentioning again: USB flash drives and hard drives will become obsolete, and our grown children will look at them the same way we look at floppy disks. Imagine if your family history resided on a collection of floppy disks! The photos I treasure the most are the ones that are tangible and available for me to hold in my hand or walk past in my house or my parents’ house. And already, I feel this pattern developing with my children. We regularly sit down with photo albums I’ve made over the years, of when they were babies, or mom and dad’s life before they came along. The images in these books (and the stories that go along with them) are beginning to burn into their three- and 4.5-year-old brains. But the photos in my Facebook archive or cloud photo archive? Nope.

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So print your photos, folks. Let them decorate the walls of your homes. Put them into albums that you can enjoy now and in the future. When inspiration and time afford, hire a professional to show you the beauty in your own real life through photographs, because honestly – it’s worth remembering, and you’ll never regret the investment.

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