The Unsung Virtues of the Old-Fashioned Family Photo Album

Grandmother Looking At Photo Album With Teenage Granddaughter

I have roughly 10,000 photos sitting on my iPhone. I’ve never downloaded them because my computer doesn’t have enough memory to hold all the photos. Last year, I downloaded around 7,000 photos to a separate memory drive. It sits in a drawer. The pictures are never seen.

Sometimes I scroll through the most recent photos still sitting on my phone but my kids only see them if they happen to be sitting with me, and those photos only cover the last 6-months or so of activities. As for pictures of past birthdays, vacations, Christmases, and other big family events, my kids almost never see them. Their baby photos? They each have one, sitting in a frame, on a bookshelf. That’s their only concept of what they looked like as a baby.

This is very different from how I grew up. My mother kept dozens of photo albums on the shelves in the living room. Sometimes when I was bored (and that was often, growing up in the early 80s when we only had three television channels and no Xbox or Wii with which to distract ourselves), I would leaf through the albums, laughing at the pictures of me as a chubby baby; marveling at my beautiful, youthful mom; fascinated that my dad once had hair.

Yet, my mom’s responsible habit of putting together photo albums had little to do with her superiority as a parent. She simply had to organize these albums, as she didn’t want piles of developed photos lying around the house. Photos albums were a necessity—simply a storage facility for those dozens of 3×5 glossies.

Today, one doesn’t need albums, as you can view photos without going that extra step of actually developing the pictures. And that’s precisely one of the problems. Why develop photos when you can endlessly scroll, right? Except that my kids can’t scroll. They don’t have access to my phone, and even if they did, they would choose Angry Birds over looking at last year’s Christmas photos.

Of course, I’ve tried. I really have tried to download the photos. I’ve visited all the websites that claim they’ll make it easy for you to organize all your photos. That’s largely a lie. Until they figure out a way for me to simply plug in my iPhone and poof! a nice organized book appears three days later, the process is not easy. Ever.

Usually, I start out enthusiastically. I’ll make a cup of coffee and sit down at the dining room table, ready to organize the photos. I’m in a good mood, hopeful and ambitious. Three hours later, I’m crying and frustrated. I become overwhelmed, something goes wrong, like the downloading freezes and I have to repeat hours of work, or things just get in the way. It quickly becomes clear: I simply have no way of dedicating hours to a project like organizing tens of thousands of photos. So, I put everything away and move on to other projects, filled with guilt that yet another attempt has failed.

Part of the problem, of course, is that technology, while a blessing in many ways, is really a curse when it comes to photo documenting your children’s lives. Today, I take dozens of photos a day—for the most mundane activities. Oh, look! He picked a flower! Gotta capture this tender moment. Oh, look! He’s smiling so sweetly as he eats his lunch. That’s a keeper! Look! He’s licking the sidewalk. Hilarious! Snap, snap, snap. And of course, one photo won’t suffice. I take dozens for each event. Scrolling through them later, I realize there’s hardly any difference between the photos. Yet, I continue this wasteful photo binging behavior. There must be a support group for this. I’ll Google that later.

This makes the process of downloading even more of a hassle, as one first needs to go through and organize which ones you actually want. Do I trash the others? Do I move the ones I want to develop to a “good photos” folder and still keep the rest of them? Do I just give up, admit defeat, become Amish and swear off all technology for the rest of my life? Sometimes that feels like the best path.

My mother never dealt with this issue. She didn’t take dozens of pictures of exactly the same thing. She took one picture since, forty years ago, camera film was pretty expensive. You didn’t waste film trying to take the perfect photo. Instead, you waited for a good enough shot, steadied yourself, clicked once and hoped it came out. And of course, the photos were developed because there was no other way to see the photos. I can still remember the heart pounding anticipation of getting that envelope of developed photos from the drug store, when one-hour photo development was considered an amazing leap in modern technology.

Today my kids are surprised if I take fewer than seven photos before breakfast. I’m always documenting their lives, though I’m still not sure who is ever going to see it.

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