Old photographs, new technology — the pluses and minuses of going digital


Photographs have been on my mind lately.  Earlier this summer, my husband and his sisters started the process of getting old negatives and slides transferred to digital files.  In the course of doing so, they’ve found all kinds of family pictures that haven’t seen the light of day for decades.

And in the course of making a memorial website for my mother-in-law Joan, we’ve been reviewing all sorts of photos from her life.  We’ve seen her as a young girl, as a beautiful bride, as a stylish traveler in the terrific photo above (PanAm Airlines!).

Photos mean a lot, no doubt about that.

Since getting a digital camera and a Smartphone, I never seem to develop actual prints anymore.  I used to order some periodically and send them to Joan, who I knew liked to have actual hard copies of snapshots of the grandsons to share around (I wish I had sent her a lot more than I did).  But most of the photos that I snap now end up on Google or on the computer.

And I have mixed feelings about all of this.

When you have young kids, a digital camera is a super thing.  You can instantly assess a family grouping and see whether everyone is smiling, whether anyone is looking down.  When the boys were first crawling and walking, they’d move so fast that sometimes they would be out of the shot before I knew it; with a digital camera, I knew to take another one.  And it’s certainly less expensive than developing a roll of film that may contain a bunch of duds.  You can also share digital photos so very easily (this blog post is proof of that).

And yet there’s something about holding old photographs that is romantic in the broadest sense.  Those black and white photos with the white scalloped edges, the Polaroids, the small square color photos from the 60s and 70s where the color seems slightly off — they are a past you can hold.   Somehow it is nice for these photos to take up actual space, to exist on their own independent of technology.  It’s almost a spiritual experience to leaf through an old album, or to turn over an old snapshot and see an inscription like Christmas 1944 written in old-fashioned cursive on the back.

Easter 1974

My family on Easter, 1974. A tie like that needs to be recorded for the ages.

And while on the one hand, technology helps us preserve photographs for the future, I am all too aware of my tendency to leave photos languishing by the hundreds on the computer, where they don’t see the light of day.  I always think,  “Oh, I’ll make an album with those someday,” and then I never do.  Will members of my family even find these photos in the future?  Will they even know of their existence if they are not sitting in a box or album somewhere?

I don’t want to turn the clock back to the time without digital cameras, for sure. But have we lost something in the process of making the shift from film to digital?   I think so, and I’d love to find a way to get it back.

What about you?  How do you handle family photos?  Any thoughts on the digital vs. film debate?

5 responses to “Old photographs, new technology — the pluses and minuses of going digital

  1. That is why I still scrapbook and hold my albums dear to my heart! I feel the same way going through my grandma’s photos when I visit her (She has one where she was in a coca cola ad for American Airlines as a stewardess). It is fun to look at the old style of photography. I think looking through photo albums is fun and so nostalgic and can pass on our family stories for generations.

  2. As my son approaches his 1st birthday and his loves-all-things-traditional mom would really like to make him an album of his first year (because the baby album’s that were made for myself and my brothers and my mom and dad and uncles before us are absolute treasures), I am totally struggling with the digital v. film issue. Carlos and I have taken to making albums on Shutterfly and having them printed. We actually recently put together a Shutterfly album for Carlos’s grandfather with a lifetime of pictures (starting with old black and white photos from when he was a baby all the way through to his great-grandson David’s ultrasound picture) for his birthday, and he looks through it every day. It was actually a really fun project and something to which the whole family contributed.
    I know it would be easier to just do that for David but something about a baby album made the pre-digital photos way, which includes other mementos such as cards, a baptism certificate, a hospital bracelet, the lock of hair from baby’s first haircut, is calling my name…

  3. I remember that tie! If anything ever needed to be “Photo-Shopped,” it is my tie in that snapshot – one of the “advantages” of this digital age. You know my feelings about ALL technology: When used judiciously, it is a boon; when not used judiciously, it can be very detrimental and distracting.
    The same holds true of digital photography.

  4. Kim, that photo of your grandma sounds like a real treasure. I love retro pictures like that!

    Viki, I feel your dilemma. And I need to admit that I am terrible at baby books. Each of the boys has one and I have not opened them in years … ouch. But I too do love the idea of an album that includes artifacts beyond photos. (That said, Shutterfly photo books are totally awesome gifts. I have made one for the grandparents each year and they always LOVE them.)

    Dad, that tie is epic! So glad it was preserved on film. 🙂

  5. I love actual photos … I love the way that they feel, I love the colors, I love to touch their edges, I love to gaze at them, allowing them to transport me to another time and place. My favorite is the penned inscriptions on the back … this is magical for me. Inscriptions speak of history, nostalgia, the persons who penned the place, date and people in the photo … and they spark lively family conversations. I love to listen and contribute to all that is madly being said, with all those who sit round my table when the pictures come out!!
    Technology is nice … we can do things today that we wouldn’t even dream of years ago. Saddly, technology also breeds laziness … whatever we photograph with our ipads, iphones and digital cameras, our stories may end up staying right there for so long, that we forget what we photographed in the first place. Sometimes our memories on our devices get accidentally deleted! That’s devastating!
    My daughter left for college this morning, traveling far from home. She won’t be home until Christmas. With all of the photos she has on her iphone, ipad and digital camera, guess what she asked me for??? She asked if I would mail her some of the framed family photos on her desk. She does have a digital photo frame from her last school year away from home … all her picture are on it. She didn’t want that and left it behind. As she put it, I can’t take that with me wherever I’m going when I compete! Please send me that framed stuff because I like those so much better.
    I’m with her! Nothing can replace or take the place of holding that little bit of love and family in your hands.