A friend of mine is in the process of downsizing from her big two-story house where she raised her family to a smaller place. She’s sorting through all the things that she neatly stored away in her attic. Drawings her sons made in grade school, letters from old friends, newspaper clippings about family milestones and lots of other mementos that she intended to one day pass on to her sons or future grandchildren. She sadly confessed to me the other day that she simply will not have the space to put everything in her new home. And that, she told me, includes all the boxes of photographs collected from over the years and taken of her kids, family and friends.
She’s now trying to figure out exactly what to do with them all. It’s a dilemma many of us have faced at one time or another in our lives. I suppose it’s a fair assumption to say that it’s less likely to be a problem for those who began snapping photos after the advent of digital photography. (The accumulation of digital photos presents its own sort of new problems. Maybe a topic for a future blog.) She’s considering tossing them after scanning and saving the prints to CDs, flash cards or external hard drives which would take up less space. But that is not a foolproof solution for storing and preserving your precious family photographs and snapshots. Those systems can fail too and in a single instant all your visual memories disappear. Forever.
When that happens, and I’m sure nearly everyone these days knows someone who has “lost” their pictures or documents to a digital disaster, not only have your memories, once so well-preserved on paper, vanished, so has very important information that could serve generations to come. The tradition of the ‘snapshot’ has been around since the first Kodak cameras in 1888 popularized and made more affordable to everyone the hobby of photography. People became entranced with taking pictures of one another in all sorts of situations–on vacations, family outings, celebrations, in their homes, businesses, churches and farms–doing all sorts of things.
Those snapshots are often passed on to the next generation. I myself have boxes of personal snapshots recently received from my parents’ home after my Dad died last spring. I now have the task of looking through them all, which I did frequently during my last visits to my parents’ home, deciding which to scan and then determining to whom the original prints should be handed. At the same time, I’m learning things about my family that I never knew, had forgotten or didn’t remember correctly.
The snapshot plays an important part of American culture. Unlike any other time in history, we can glimpse back into the past two hundred fifty years by looking at an actual photograph taken at that time. Since the early 1900s, many of those photographs are ‘snapshots’ recorded by amateur photographers wanting to remember the day and to share it with their family and friends. From these everyday pictures stored away in photo albums, in shoeboxes, in slide trays or the like, we can learn what life was like for our family, what was important to them, what they wore, whom they loved, how they enjoyed their time together, where they went and what they saw. In short, through these images, we can peer into their lives as preserved so well on paper in black and white and later, color. They can make us happy or a bit sad, cause us to reminisce or sometimes bring pain, solve mysteries or begin one. All this, from just a few inches of photographic paper. I find this pretty remarkable.
I was reminded of the inestimable worth of the common snapshot when reading a recent article by Jon Feinstein on the Humble Arts Foundation blog. Feinstein was writing about Seattle-based Robert E. Jackson, a serious collector of American snapshots. Some of Jackson’s more than 11,000 snapshots have been exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and at galleries in New York City, Los Angeles and Texas. Jackson is interested in the aesthetic and ‘unintentional’ artistic qualities found in snapshots rather than the historic aspects. Yet another reason why snapshots hold value and significance for people.
While your own, or my friend’s or my family snapshots may never be displayed at a gallery, they may be displayed in your home, on digital frames, in albums or on your walls. Even if you, like my friend, choose to scan and digitize your photos, be sure to hang on to the original prints. If you no longer have the space to keep them or don’t want to keep them all, select the ones most meaningful to you or your family to save so that future generations, who may not have access to your digital files, will have clues to who you were and the time you lived. For those that you decide not to keep, perhaps others in your family may want them. Or box them up and offer them to collectors such as Jackson or even your local museums or libraries who may want to add some or all of them to their collections or archives.
The snapshot continues to evolve with the emergence of new technology but one thing is for certain, it is here to stay.
You can read more about the impact that the snapshot has had on our society in a recent Smithsonian magazine article: The Invention of the ‘Snapshot’ Changed the Way We Viewed the World by Clive Thompson.