(First published in Family
Tree magazine, August 2014)
OUR PHOTOGRAPHIC HISTORY
An old photograph
led family historian Ian Richardson to write a book that is now being
turned into a feature film, but he wonders whether family photographs
will survive the digital age.
"More means less" is a truism that applies to many areas of
life - but never more so than with present-day digital photography.
It is safe to estimate
that billions of digital photographs are taken around the world each day,
but almost none will ever become part of a family history archive. They
are here today and gone tomorrow.
There was a time,
not that many decades ago, when taking a photograph was an event from
which the results were treasured.
The photographs from
these sessions were archive quality and became proud possessions to be
passed on from generation to generation.
We must all know friends
and family who indiscriminately fire away with their digital cameras and
smartphones with the enjoyment being for the moment.
Some of these photographic
efforts are emailed to friends and family, or are posted on Facebook,
Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other social media outlets. They are very
rarely turned into prints that can be held in the hand and admired, or
put in a frame or even a photo album.
The irony is that
the technical quality of the pictures taken on digital cameras and smart
phones is often exceptionally high, but not by the time they are transferred
to the social media.
This takes me onto
another bugbear: identification of photographs.
A common reluctance
to identify "the who, the where and the when" on a photograph
can be the result of modesty, but it is often down to a failure to understand
that memories soon become blurred.
All my saved photographs
are identified, usually with a caption added when I process them through
my picture editing software.
This is something
that has often attracted ridicule from my family and friends. I would
be told "But we know all that!"
"Well, you know
that now," I would respond, "but you probably won't remember
the date in a matter of months, you will be a bit hazy about the location
in a few years, and a few years after that you won't be entirely sure
who all the people are."
Ten years or so ago,
during a visit to my aged mother in Australia, we found a box of old photographs
in a wardrobe.
It was a rich goldmine
of family memories, but almost none of the pictures bore any identification.
My mother and I working
our way through the collection, using a soft pencil to write names, and
where possible, locations and approximate dates on the back of each one.
Had my mother not
had such a good memory for people and places, the historical value of
many of the photographs would have been lost.
My eye was caught
by a family group photograph taken in a studio in Melbourne in 1914 around
the time the First World War was getting underway.
The group included
a woman I had never seen before.
My mother identified
her as my Great Aunt Florence "Florrie" Cox, and under cross-examination,
she reluctantly revealed that Florrie had been an Australian Baptist missionary
in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and had been the victim of a terrible
scandal that had shamed her family and the church.
This photograph was
to lead to my late-life career change from BBC broadcast journalist to
screenwriter and author.
My mother's evasiveness
over what had happened to Great Aunt Florrie prompted me to begin an investigation
that lasted the best part of 10 years.
What I had originally
thought would be a marginal family history episode was transformed into
a book, God's Triangle, and a film deal.
The point I am trying
to make here is that had my mother not had such a strong long-term memory,
that old photograph would never have been identified and the fascinating
story of God's Triangle would never have been told.
While I fear for family
photographic histories, all is not lost.
New and cheap printing
techniques have emerged in recent years as a benefit of digitisation.
It is now possible
with fairly basic computer skills to design a photobook that can be printed
by a commercial company for as little as £10, although £40
is a reasonable expectation for larger books with hard covers.
Photobooks have an
advantage over the old photographic albums in that the photos do not become
unstuck and fall out over time.
That is at least one
positive aspect - and an important one - of an otherwise distressing consequence
of today's shoot-from-the hip mass digital photography.
So, get cracking on
your photobook, and remember to identify your photographs. Talk to your
older relatives about the pictures in your family history archive. You
may be surprised at the gems from the past that they have tucked away
and one day your descendants will be very grateful.
Ian Richardson's book, God's Triangle, is available as a paperback
or ebook here: http://www.godstriangle.com/