I’m going through a box of old Polaroid pictures taken by my uncle Steve Brown, and came across these three. Wonderful photographs taken over fifty years ago of my father, my aunt, my grandmother and my cousins, pictures I had never seen before.
But look how close these were to being lost! They were in a fire and could easily have been destroyed, but fortunately the flames just nipped around the edges and didn’t destroy the images themselves.
Photographs are so precious and so vulnerable. Printed on paper, they can all too easily be destroyed by fire or flood, or damaged by mold, mildew, insects, etc. Digital images can be lost when a drive crashes, deleted in error or forgotten in the transfer to a new computer. And both types of photographs can be lost to posterity if the right person doesn’t take possession of them after you’re gone.
So scan every paper photograph you care about, and make more than one copy of the file, kept in different places on and offline. Give copies to members of your family, either on a CD/DVD or other storage device, or sent by e-mail. Upload them to Facebook or Flickr or Ancestry.com — the more copies that are out there, the less likely it is that the image will be lost to future generations.
Digital copies are great, but make paper copies, too. Prints are inexpensive, so make lots and give them to all your family members. Some people will just toss them in a file or a desk drawer, but most of those copies will get passed along to younger family members, and there’s usually at least one person in every generation that’s interested in this kind of thing.
The care and preservation of photographs is a complex topic, and there are lots of books and websites that explain it all in more detail. But sometimes I think the technical stuff scares people away, and that they put off doing anything with their photographs until they have time to learn more and do it right. But don’t put it off — stuff happens and a single copy of a photograph can so easily be lost forever.