Photographic memories

Albums. Boxes. Hard drives. Discs. Social media. The cloud.

While all of these methods of storing photos have their relative benefits and drawbacks, I find nothing quite compares to flipping through an album or box of photo prints.

For one, there’s the tactile experience of looking through and organizing physical prints and negatives, which our smartphones, tablets, and computers just don’t quite replicate.

Then, there’s the joy of looking through these photos with a family member and sharing the collective memories — or guesses — about what’s depicted in the images.

Especially if those pictures were shot with film.

Photos that were developed from a roll of the film seem to have a lot more inherent mystery than digital shots. There’s usually only a vague estimate of when and where these pictures were taken, as opposed to the dated, timestamped and geotagged digital photo files produced by smartphones.

There’s something wonderful about the debates and questions that can arise when you pass around an old and potentially mysterious photo: “Where was this taken?” “Who’s that person?” “When exactly did we take that trip out west?” “Whatever happened to that chair?” “Who took this photo?” “Why on earth were we doing that?” “Yikes, why did I ever wear those shorts?”

This whole discussion is pretty fresh in my mind, as I recently had the joy of looking through some big stacks of old family photos that my dad has been organizing recently.

Like many family photo collections, it’s filled with images of vacations, birthdays, holidays, hikes, home renovation projects, graduations, gardens, and pets.

Some of the photos depict experiences I clearly remember, while other pictures show long-forgotten events.

However, some images can almost bring a memory to life, creating vivid recollections of textures, colors, smells, sounds, and feelings from decades ago.

Photos of our old dining room conjure up the chalky, waxy and somehow colorful scent of crayons, watercolors, and markers that I’d fill the table with while working on art projects as a child.

A view of a quiet spot near a bend in the Sand River brings back the excitement I felt when my mom would take me on little picnics and adventures in the woods behind my childhood home.

An image of my parents’ tree-framed driveway reminds me of the embarking on mini engineering projects out there as a young child, making crevices and dams to shape the flow of spring snowmelt and rainfall on the gravel.

It’s amazing what a simple glance at a photo can do.

This experience reminded me why it’s so important to take and preserve photos, but it also highlighted the value of looking back at those pictures.

There’s a lot we can learn from our photo collections, especially if we discuss them with a person who understands or at least appreciates the context of the pictures.

We forget more of our own lives than we know or recognize, and the simple act of taking a photo and looking back at it later can preserve a moment that might otherwise be forever forgotten.

When we capture and reflect on these moments, we can use them to learn, grow and understand the larger context of our lives.

It might make you laugh, it might make you cry. Maybe both.

But it’s worth digging those old photo albums out. You never know what you and your loved ones might get out of the experience.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cecilia Brown is city editor at The Mining Journal. She lives in Marquette and can be found hiking if the weather’s nice, or curled up with a book if not. Contact her at cbrown@miningjournal.net.