Friday, February 11, 2011

cleaning out the closet

A lot of people clean out closets this time of year, it seems. Or maybe it's just when they bring their old pictures in. And I admit, people's really old photos are probably my favorite thing about this job. I know we're a camera store, but I'm not just interested in the latest thing. I was raised by historians (here's a bit of trivia: my mother and Stephen's mother attended the same graduate program to study museum curation), and so there's nothing I love more than delving into history. Books are nice and all, but as students of history will know, they are secondary source material, collected and edited together. People's old photos? Those are primary source material. First-hand records of history as it was lived.

Last year a man brought in a box of uncut rolls of 35mm film, black and white, to be scanned into digital format. I wasn't eager to tackle the project until I unrolled the first one, peered at it, and realized... these were someone's hand-loaded, home-developed family photos from the USSR in the 1960s. I know nothing about that place at that time. There were no notes I could read, no context, but most of the photos were of a beautiful young woman and a little boy, who began as an infant and grew into childhood. There were family trips to parks, ice cream cones, strollers, enormous family gatherings at holiday tables. It was fascinating. (I think the little boy must have been the man who brought them in, and the young woman his mother, who would be quite elderly now. She really was a beauty, in those early pictures.)
Last month a man brought in a large photograph of a graduating class at an Indian university in the 1930s. We had to re-type the caption, as it was too blurred to scan. We had two employees double-check the spelling on the totally foreign (to us) names of the students.
Last week an elderly African-American woman brought in a handful of medium-format negatives. They were mostly photos of herself, as a young woman, posing in a fashionable 60s sheath dress, posing by a prize rosebush, posing proudly in a nursing uniform with a certificate next to a beaming older woman-- almost certainly her mother. There were children in home-made pinafores with rick-rack trim and crinoline skirts, posing on probably their first day of school, on the porch of a modest house. A crowd, a family most likely, around a table bearing what looked like a birthday cake. It was a mute narrative of what life was like in our city for African-Americans around the time of the Civil Rights movement.
Yesterday a woman brought in a wedding album that was her mother's; the bridesmaids' hats dated the photos pretty conclusively to just after World War II. Look at the men's suits; the bride's dress with lace sleeves and a satin sweetheart bodice-- how happy the guests looked in the receiving line-- and the hats, oh, the hats.

These are worlds I'd never have any access to otherwise, not in such an immediate way; I wasn't born until the end of the 70s, and my family is white and from New York City. I spend way longer on these orders than I should, looking at the details of the costume, of the wallpaper, what they're eating, how they lived. This is history. It's priceless.

Do you have any of these treasures locked away in a box somewhere? Get them digitized! Share them with your relatives! And preserve them, for our own history is the richer, the more primary sources, firsthand accounts, are preserved and shared with the world. We can digitize slides, negatives, prints, daguerreotypes, tintypes, you name it, whatever size. And once they're digitized, they can be reprinted. (Give all your cousins a copy of Grandma's wedding photo!)
We can even transfer 8mm film to DVDs. (And, for more recent history, VHS tapes too!)
Look through your closets. Find those old boxes. Don't let them get moldy, scratched, dusty; don't let them disintegrate until there's not enough left to tell what the picture was. It's your history, your heritage. Everyone is a little richer for seeing it, for learning from it-- especially you.

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