The brown photo album sat on the coffee table staring back at me: a seven-inch-thick, celluloid timeline of my life.
Inside its faux-leather covers were more than 100 pictures, technicolor shots of me unwrapping Christmas gifts and wrestling the family dog, marching in my Navy blues and getting married in a rented tuxedo.
The book had been placed in front of me by my mother, dragged from her bedroom and deposited there with a loud “thump.”
“It’s time for you to have this,” she said, smacking me on the leg playfully. “I’m not going to be around forever.”
It would be an understatement to say my 76-year-old mother loves photographs. They hang on her walls, line her shelves and sit patiently in more than a dozen albums placed strategically around her apartment.
So when she handed me a book of memories 41 years in the making, it got my attention. What she was passing on wasn’t just a collection of poorly framed shots of family reunions and birthday parties, it was a time capsule containing tangible pieces of our family’s story; proof that we existed (and in my case, rocked an awesome mullet).
The whole exchange got me to thinking about the value photos bring to our lives and how digital technology and online social networking have changed the way we hang onto them. The sad truth is, we don’t. Not really.
We keep our pictures on our computers, or our phones; we display them on Facebook or some other networking site. But we rarely print them out, trusting instead in the permanence of technology that changes hourly.
In 2006, Fujifilm looked at the photography landscape and came to a startling conclusion. That year some 25 billion images were captured, and most of them were printed. Analyzing trends, the company estimated that by 2009, 135 billion images would be captured, but only a fraction would be printed.
It’s a problem that has historians and archivists worried that the late 20th and early 21st century — arguably the most photographed period in history — could be the least permanently documented since George Eastman first introduced his “box camera” to the world.
‘We are all 24-hour photographers now’
Photography as we know it has been around since only the 1860s, when families first started documenting their lives through sepia-toned portraits taken by traveling professionals with daguerreotypes.
By the 1900s, people were taking and keeping their own photos. Photo albums caught on not long after Mark Twain invented the self-adhesive scrapbook, a patent that reportedly earned him more money than any single book he wrote.
These days digital cameras cost less than a good razor. And cell phones take pictures as detailed as point-and-shoots. The resulting freedom is often abused; unless you think 170 years of technological advances were made to help my high school buddy, Jack, send me photos of his dinner (“Totally crushing this taco, bro!”).
The near omnipresence of cameras has gotten to the point that it’s not entirely clear if we, as a culture, experience anything without also recording it. It is the new, “If a tree falls in the forest...,” conundrum.
“We are all 24-hour photographers now,” said Tim Hickernell, lead researcher for Info-Tech Research Group. “The question is, what are we doing after we take the picture?”
Info-Tech is a global information technology company that has more than 8,000 clients. A large part of Hickernell’s job is researching trends in archiving, including digital images.
“It is yet to be seen if we’ll actually take that extra step and save any of this stuff,” he said.
The process used to be simple, if labor-intensive. You took your film to the drugstore and waited for your prints. Then you’d ditch the unflattering shots and toss the rest in a shoebox or drawer, or arrange them in an album.
Was it convenient? No. But it did result in a pile of photos (and negatives) that, more often than not, hung around. Today, our computers serve as what industry insiders call “electronic shoeboxes.”
There are not a lot of studies on the issue, but recently PCWorld conducted one in England that found 80 percent of respondents preferred to keep their photos online. Only half of them ever bothered to get prints, and then only occasionally.
“It’s a whole new kind of preservation problem,” said Debra Shapiro, UW-Madison archivist . “Digital images are not forever. Computers crash. Technology becomes outdated. Not many people are thinking down the road.”
Keeping the past
In 2003, Kara Hanko moved to England to attend University College Falmouth. She spent four years there, earning a journalism degree. The 30-year-old Madison public relations professional said the items she treasured most during her time abroad were the photo albums brought from home.
“There is a power in our photos, they provide comfort,” she said. “I can’t imagine what would happen if 50 years from now, I didn’t have them to remind me of family and friends.”
Hanko’s mother, Kathy Cruice, has a closet full of albums in her West Side home. Hanko said it’s common for the two women to lose track of time leafing through them and sharing stories.
But even Hanko hasn’t printed many photos in recent years. “I keep them on my computer and on my phone, but that’s where they stay,” she said.
There are a number of new ways people can save their pictures. Online sites like Kodak Gallery, Snapfish and Shutterfly offer handy “photo book” programs in which you download images and create neatly arranged books that are mailed to you.
And there is the computer “cloud” system, which is a digital network that can be accessed from multiple locations. The idea is people will keep photos there, which could protect them from crashes and changes in technology. Then, every so often, they’d print out a photo book.
“I think when people get used to it, this will be the new normal,” said Lisa Walker, president of International Imaging Industry Association, a global digital storage organization.
But Walker said people will have to make it a point to take that extra step and have hard copies made.
She suggests using special dates, like birthdays and Christmas, as deadlines for printing photos.
“You do not want to look back years later and realize you didn’t save anything,” she said.