Photo confessions

Today is my wedding anniversary. My husband Matt and I have been married for three years. We have literally thousands of lovely photographs to remember the day… But I have a confession. I still haven’t written on the backs of any of the 500+ that I actually had printed. I know…for shame on this archivist!

I had enough trouble even deciding which of the 4,000+ digital images to get printed. I want to give a shout out to my wonderful wedding photographer Cory Trese, who gives the bride and groom all the rights to make as many prints as you want. But the ability to do that is part of what caused the problem. I ordered 500+ prints. After the exhaustion of selecting them, I was actually a little too tired of looking at them to bear the thought of writing names and dates on the back of each one. I believe this was before I discovered Shutterfly would print file names on the back of the photos, which saves me having to write a lot on the backs these days; I just rename the file with that info and then when I upload/print, voila! But, I digress…

So, now, three years later, I still have 500+ unlabeled pictures in a pretty red photo box — yes, red for love, so I can spot at an instant the wedding photos box, among the sea of others! corny, I know but there you are.

Now that I’m finally finished with my second master’s degree, the labeling of these wedding photos is rather high on my “list of things I’ve been putting off until after grad school is over”. I am most concerned about the photos from the reception, which have any of nearly 200 people in them, and I wan to make sure those people’s identities are not lost!

I’ve gone through a lot of boxes of old photographs, at my relatives’ homes and at the archives where I work/ have worked. And I’ve got to say, one of the most frustrating things is having all these wonderful pictures and having no clue who the people are! Who’s that guy with great-grandpa? Oop, nobody knows because they didn’t write on the back.  Or, several weeks ago at the library, I came across an albumen print cabinet card of this stunningly beautiful girl — not the sort of Plain Jane you usually see in such old photos, she reminded me of a cross between Scarlett Johnansen and Kristen Stewart — and was she identified? Sadly, no.

Anyway, the point is – I never want anybody to have that same experience with any of my photo collections — the “Ooh, who’s this?” *flips to back* [no identification] = Sad Panda moment. So I’ve always been a big photo identifier.

Although, knowing what I know now, I wish I could go back in time to high school and tell my 17-year-old self that using adhesive labels on the backs of photos was not such a brilliant idea after all, though at the time, it seemed like the perfect way to avoid writing “Notre Dame Junior Prom, Apr. 29, 2000” like 100 times… But unfortunately, still no time machine. (That reminds me, I’ll have to keep an eye on those in case the labels start falling off as time wears on and the adhesive likely starts doing funky things…)

Any archivist who made it past Day 1 knows that the main writing implement in the Archivists’ proverbial arsenal is PENCIL. But let’s face it, pencil won’t really write on the backs of today’s photo prints. Stupid slick glossy paper! But I have a special archival pen that I use to write on photos. (It’s sort of like an extra-fine-point Sharpie but archival.) Even so, I still try to write very close to the bottom or top of the photo and steer clear of the area where people’s faces or the main part of the picture are located.

Which reminds me, when I do get that time machine, I’ll have to go back in time and tell my 13-year-old self that writing on the backs of all my pictures with cheap blue Paper-Mate ballpoint pen, directly behind the people’s faces (what? it seemed like a good idea at the time – that way you could be sure who I was talking about in large groups!)….wasn’t a good idea. Oh, and then stacking the pictures back on top of each other before the ink dried… Nice one. Not.

Live and learn, right? But even so, I have to say, I think that some method of marking your pictures is better than none at all. No, really. I will probably be stoned as an archivist for saying this but if you can’t manage to get an archival marker or identify your photos in a way that doesn’t involve marking on them (which I won’t even go into right now but it can be done), then go ahead…use a pen. But try to write really small and stay away from the main part of the photo, and make sure you let the ink dry before you inevitably shuffle the photos back together like a deck of cards. And I’ll tell you why I say “go ahead and do that”: Because if in 50 or 100 years, someone finds those photos, at least they will know who those people are. The whole point of a photograph is to remember something, right? A person, an event, a place, a family, a home, a celebration, a wedding… What good are your photos going to be when you’re gone, if those left behind don’t know who or what they depict? How are they ever supposed to know why that photo was important to you (and why they should keep it!)?

Oh wait, in 50 or 100 years, most people won’t have any printed photos to speak of because they’ll all be digital and may or may not have been lost due any of a variety of technical failures. (And even if they survive, did you rename the image files? Hmm??) But that’s another story entirely.

But someday when I’m long gone and my family pulls that Big Box of Photos out of the attic reasonably-temperature-and-humidity-controlled room, I want them to know what they’re looking at (and with any luck, why it was important to me). And to do that, I have to label the pictures, some way or another.

And, speaking from experience both as an archivist and as a descendant of family photo collection owners, I encourage everyone to write on their photos too.  Yes, even if you don’t have a fancy archival photo pen. Even if it means putting inkpen to photo (shudder). In my humble opinion, it is a greater evil to have that info completely lost to posterity than to have a small bit of non-archival ink on the bottoms of your photos.

I’ll be remedying my unlabeled wedding photos soon. I hope I may have inspired you to label some of your photos as well.

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