80 years of taking and mismanaging personal photographs

My personal photographs are now utterly out of control. Imagine 80 years worth of photos, from 1940 to 2020, scattered and jumbled in photo books and folders and hard drives and clouds and devices all over the world.

In the 1940s I wasn’t taking any photos, I was in the rather rare photos of my parents. Taking a photo was a big deal, involving the ubiquitous Box Brownie. Twice a year we were corralled for a photo of our mother’s latest feat in clothing us all. Our Dad would make us giggle and press the shutter.

Amateur photo of six sisters aged 2–11, black and white
Winter 1948 (?): 6 girls, 6 green jerseys, 12 grey socks, and 6 grey pleated skirts.

Or something special would happen and Mother would take the photo.

Man in clerical collar and suit holds a calf that two little girls are patting. Black and white photo.
Rachel/Robin and Prue meet the new calf of Daisy, our house cow.

I don’t remember taking any photos in the 1950s, when I was in my teens. Maybe one or two at university. But others did, occasionally. And I would stick copies in a big photo album with annotations.

Black and white photo of 10 teenagers at a party, 1950s; hand-written notes name the people
1956: a Youth Club party at St Mary’s, Merivale, Christchurch.

In the 1960s I married, lived in Geneva for four years, then returned to a life of domestication and motherhood in New Zealand. I remember a twin lens reflex camera, a Yashica A. A bulky thing that required much fiddling with aperture and speed. I have lost track of all the photos of our life in Switzerland, and this is typical of the chaos in my records. I hope they turn up in time for my funeral.

More important are the precious early photos of our children.

Black and white photo of four children in a park setting. 1960
Best children in the world visit the zoo: a very personal photograph

Look! This one’s in colour! Maybe this was originally a slide… Maybe this was the era of my husband’s beloved Asahi Pentax…

Blurry, faded colour photo of two boys dressed in cardboard armour.
Two knights in not-very-shiny armour battling it out on a suburban lawn.

I took plenty of photos in Japan between 1991 and 1995. The occasional shot came off but my photos were hit-or-miss. By then I may have been using a cute little pocket-sized Olympus mju. Even so, we still had to have copies printed commercially. If you’ve grown up with a smartphone camera, you can’t imagine the deterrent effect of the cost and logistics of printing and storing personal photos. And then they might fade or they might not.

Page from a personal photograph album: small, blurry colour photos taken in Japan 1990s
Page from a personal photo album: small, rather blurry photos taken in Japan

At last, the 21st century! Phone cameras, finally. Take 50, save the best one or two (in principle). Bright, clear images. The camera virtually always at your fingertips. Spontaneity! Creativity! Fun! For point-and-shooters like me, photography has been a delight ever since.

Page from a photo album with six family photos in bright colour.
With smart phone photography, printing personal photographs became selective, then rare, then a thing of the past
Cameras from 1940–2020: Box Brownie,  Yashica A, Olympus mju, Canon Ixus, and iPhone X
Cameras I have used: Box Brownie, Yashica A, Olympus mju, Canon Ixus, and several iPhones

I’ve got much more to say about the way my personal photographs have changed over the years. The subjects and quality have always been affected by technology and the changes in my own life over 80 years. So has the way I have mismanaged them!

I read somewhere that managing digital photographs was one of the biggest challenges for amateur photographers. Is that true for you? Sure is for me.

But meantime I carry on taking more, more, more. For the sake of the planet it’s time for a cull, on a Danish mink farm scale.

38 thoughts on “80 years of taking and mismanaging personal photographs

  1. Nyla Carroll says:

    I love the old photos – such great memories!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And deeply valued

  2. cedar51 says:

    and not just photos – but letters especially airmail or the aerogram – handwritten documents (not called documents then)- then later essays and other documents via this fancy keyboard – and other things that don’t stack flat – like the skirt from Mexico (1950s) and some other things more recent like the 1960s…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That sounds rather bigger than my photo problems πŸ™

  3. Digital photography is marvelous! I went through the same phases you did. It makes us appreciate what we have now, doesn’t it? I have a storage system that suits me, so it’s easy to keep photos organized. I enjoyed the ones you shared in this post. Fun!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I’m happy to think there is light at the end of the tunnel!

  4. Sadje says:

    Old photos are precious but we do need a lot of time to preserve them. Lovely pictures Rachel

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I need to preserve only a fraction of what I have πŸ™‚

      1. Sadje says:

        I hope you can.

  5. Cathy Cade says:

    I have a started album with a few early photos, but never really got into the habit. After you’ve taken them in for developing a few times and paid a fortune to get back seven photos of your thumb and a couple of blurry ape-shots, you kind of lose interest. My first digital canon was a revelation, but it was probably too late to change the disinterest of a lifetime. I’m not an Instagram girl.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You have summed up the perils of printed photos all too well!

  6. Dan Antion says:

    The old photos are wonderful. I didn’t really start taking photos until the late 90s. It was too expensive to take a chance on me, and my wife was very good behind the camera. Once I had digital options, I made up for lost time. I’m close to being organized, but I still have about two and a half years worth to get through.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      So true: we have a whole new mind set now.

  7. Even with software that finds duplicates, or near duplicates, I still have so much rubbish amongst my photos. I had a major cull a couple of years ago and went through all my 35mm slides, keeping only about 5%. I then scanned the ones I’d kept and destroyed the originals. A couple of weeks later someone asked if I still had a photo of such and such place. Weeeeeell, funny you should ask that!!!!!!!!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Boldness is paramount,and no regrets!

      1. I decided a long time ago that regret is a wasted emotion and I would abandon it forever!

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Good thinking!

  8. puppy1952 says:

    Digital changed my life! I love technology. But – keeping track of digi photos is also a challenge. I have mine all stored in folders from the year 1999 to present and then one called “Old Photographs” in which I have old scanned photos from many years ago. This folder needs attention to get those into some semblance of order! I also have flip-files of photographs and holiday diaries from 1995 to 2010. They take up a lot of shelf space but I can’t part with them. I no longer print out diaries and photographs. They’re all on an external hard drive.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You are well organized, great work! I’m going to start on my old photobooks first…

  9. Elizabeth says:

    I am eternally grateful to my brother who took all my mother’s photo albums and those of her mother along with her slide collection to a service that put them all on DVD’s. They form the bulk of the illustrations for my blog. I am also grateful that he paid for the service!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That was a great investment. Don’t let go that DVD player, though…

      1. Elizabeth says:

        I actually was able to load them into my computer. Of course the Cloud could dissipate at any moment taking them with it. I also printed out hard copies of all photos and wrote identifying notes on the back of them, being distrustful of technology.

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Wise Elizabeth!

  10. Kim Saffron says:

    I admire enormously everybody who has organised their photos- even to a small extent. When I moved into this house five years ago I put all the photos I found around my previous house into a huge box, promising myself that I would sort them. But years go by and I never do it, And there is also a bag of slides that my husband took with one of his cameras when the children were fairly small. they will probably be sorted a bit when I have died.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I am getting an idea of how to take one small step that will help me and maybe others with this all-too-common problem.

  11. Being an avid amateur photographer I feel your pain. I have boxes of photos that span a lifetime. Now there are hard drives and backup hard drives. It just goes on but they give me joy. And that’s what it’s all about.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a highly satisfactory outcome.

  12. annbarrienz says:

    I loved this post, Rachel. I recently managed to get rid of one huge album – my trip back to NZ overland in 1974 – after photographing a small number of best photos and making into a little photo book. The others I’m keeping for the moment, as I’m not yet ready to let them go. My recent, digital photos are sort of organised.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Ann! That is such a good solution, and one we didnt have previously. Brilliant work, to have got your digital pix sorted.

  13. tidalscribe says:

    I love looking at old photos, well done to your mother, six girls to dress and have their hair brushed!

  14. Sylvie Ge says:

    This is definitely a problem for me, but I have made the decision recently to take action, putting photos where they belong, throwing those that are not good enough. I see it as a journey. Thanks for the post.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Starting. Thats the thing, right?

      1. Sylvie Ge says:

        Yes, I should have seen to it a long time ago, a long road ahead of me.

  15. Wow! Just wow! These photographs are incredible!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      You’re right πŸ™‚ And many others are dull and pointless. Now to sift the wheat from the chaff.

    2. Rachel McAlpine says:

      And your comment means a lot to me, coming from such an interesting photographer.

  16. Jean says:

    The flip side is digital photo -shooting with digital camera encourages way too many useless photos… sometimes too lazy to cull.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I think that’s the heart of the problem. I’m moving towards not culling but selecting…

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