Friday, January 14, 2011

Creating a Visual Family History

By Nita Davis

Importance of Photographs
Thanks to the digital age creating a detailed visual history for future generations is easier than ever. Throughout the years mankind has strove to create a visual connection to their ancestors. First through rock carvings, then paintings and eventually through the invention of photographs. More recently the invention of digital photography has made it even easier. Paintings and photographs provide us with a legacy that not only establishes the physical characteristics shared by our ancestors but gives us a more accurate portrayal of their lives, often recording in detail family traditions and special events. Through modern technology your photographic history if stored properly can become a vivid visual legacy preserved and enjoyed by future generations hundreds of years from now, maybe even a thousand years.

Before we go into the steps of building your visual legacy there are some important guidelines you should be aware of for the printing, handling and storing of photographic prints, that if followed will ensure your photos last as long as possible. Archival quality photo papers and inks are designed to last from 75 to 100 years when properly stored.

Photo Handling and Storage
Photographs like most anything else do deteriorate over time, and there are certain things that can speed up that deterioration. The first very important thing to know is that when I talk about the care and handling of photographs I am talking about those that have been printed at a professional photo lab because photographs printed on an ink-jet printer even if using photo paper fade much faster than those processed at a professional photo lab. Typically ink-jet photographs will begin to fade even if cared for properly within ten years.

The biggest culprits to cause the deterioration of photographs are temperature, humidity and sunlight. This is especially so when photos are stored in an area such as a basement or attic where heat and humidity is followed by cold dry weather in a continuous cycle. These conditions can actually cause your photos not only to fade but to crack and the image to separate from the paper it was printed on. Dirt, dust, oil and chemical fumes can also damage and shorten the lifespan of your photographs. For these reasons it is always important when storing photos to avoid places where they would be exposed to direct sunlight, high humidity or drastic fluctuations in humidity and temperature. It is also important that when handling photos and negatives they be handled along the edges, preferably wearing white cotton gloves, to avoid exposure to the natural oils in your skin. 

If you have an old photo that is stored in an album or has been written on, it is a good idea to photocopy it and make a back up print.  Years ago the ill effects of some common storage methods were unknown. Other methods that have been used in the past and some products that are still being sold commercially to store photos are detrimental to the longevity of your photos, such as the use of glues, rubber cement or tape to mount photos on pages. Storing photos in magnetic photo albums or inexpensive vinyl photo albums while affordable and convenient will eventually damage the photos. It is now known that exposing photographs to materials containing sulfur dioxide, fresh paint fumes, plywood, cardboard and the fumes from cleaning supplies can adversely effect the photographs. Another common cause of damage to photographs is writing on them with a regular pen or marker. Over time the acids in regular inks and papers can eat away at your photo or cause a stain to spread over the image.

You will avoid many deterioration problems if you use only photo approved acid-free pens or markers or a soft lead pencil to write on the back of your photographs. In addition any papers used for storing or displaying photos should be lignin free, acid free un-buffered paper. As for framing photos some experts recommend opting for metal frames and avoiding wood frames as they can give off harmful chemicals that will speed up deterioration. Another thing to keep in mind is that over time a photo that has been framed without the use of a window matt can stick to the glass in the frame thus damaging the photo. Archival approved products such as papers, pens, glues, tapes and plastics can be purchased at your local photo or craft store.  I plan on going into this more in another article that will talk about archiving your valued photographs. Now that we have gone over the importance of photographs and how to avoid deterioration problems it is time to focus on creating our visual family legacy.

Building a Legacy
Building your visual family history can sound daunting but the rewards of creating a visual legacy for your family will make it worth your time. Gathering old photos and the information to go with those photos may take time but each one will add to the richness of your legacy, so don't get discouraged. This will be a work in progress that will take time and continue to grow as long as you continue to gather photos and information. Before you get started you will need to decide just how far back you wish your history to go. Do you want the history to go as far back as you can possibly go, or to start with the current living generations of your family, it is entirely up to you.

Earlier Ancestors
To build a foundation of earlier ancestors for your legacy you may need to ask family members to allow you to scan old photos or give you copies of photos they may have of different family members or special family events. Be sure when you scan the photos to scan them on a photo scanner at a minimum of 300 dpi. Remember to ask your family members about the photos and get any stories they may have concerning the photographs. If you have chosen to go back as far as possible one source for old photos and news clippings is to check with your local Genealogy Society, they may have some that would enrich your own records. When gathering photos try to find some of the family homes, vacation spots, schools, maybe even places they worked. These can all add to the visual history as well as be wonderful sources to jog the memories of family members to enable you to gather stories about places and events that were important to earlier generations. For many reasons there may not be a lot of photos to establish your families early history but don't be dismayed. Between those you are able to collect and oral histories you will most likely be able to build a relatively detailed early history of your family. In next Friday's article "Finding Family Histories the Fun Way" we will discuss how to collect oral histories which when combined with your Visual History create a detailed history for future generations.

Current Generations
While you are collecting past history keep in mind that current events need to be recorded for future generations. Try not to limit this to just special events. Sure you want photos of those special family occasions but your life is more than just a few days of the year. Photograph everyday activities that your family enjoys. For example if your family likes to watch Monday night football, get some pictures of doing just that. Try to capture emotions and unique facial expressions in your photographs. When my youngest daughter became a teenager, I was totally amazed that many of her facial expressions were just like my husbands late sister whom our daughter had never met. I wish now that my mother-in-law had captured some of those expressions in photographs so we could have a visual comparison to show the similarities. Try to get candid shots were the subject doesn't 'POSE' for the photograph. Often when they do pose for a photo to be taken they assume a fake smile or stiff stance and that is not what you want your history to show.

While you are taking pictures also take some of your home inside and out. This will be important especially if you decorate for holidays you will want to show future generations where you lived and what your traditions were. Get pictures of your kids in front of their schools, getting on or off the school bus if they ride one. Pictures of them with their favorite teacher can also be a nice added detail. Don't limit your photos to people only, remember pets and treasured items can also play a big part of showing who and what we are. For example that blue ribbon your son won in the first grade spelling bee or maybe it is your daughters first pair of dance shoes, whatever it may be photograph it. Many times these items and special times that were so important to a family member are forgotten about as time goes by and bit by bit details of our lives fade to just a few special occasions.

You are probably thinking right now that to do as I suggest you will have to have your camera on you 24/7 and will go broke processing and printing film. While I do admit that if you are using a film camera my suggestions would become rather expensive and require you to have your camera at the ready at all times. For this reason I recommend two things; 1. invest in a digital camera. It doesn't have to be fancy with all the bells and whistles just something you can take decent photos with, preferable 3.5 or more mega pixels. 2. If you have or are able get a cell phone with a camera you can use it to catch moments in the spur of the moment when your regular camera may not be handy. Most of the cameras on newer cell phones actually can capture rather good photos.

In addition to the photos you take try to keep a written record for the photos. If you print all the photos this is easily done by writing all the information on the back of the photograph. Remember use only an acid-free pen or marker made for writing on photos or if you do not have one use a soft lead pencil to gently record the information on the back of the photo.  Record not just the names of people but also the dates, times and locations. With digital photos this information can either be added to the file properties or saved in a text file with the image file number to reference the photo. We will cover these more in our upcoming article on digital photo storage and organization.

You may also want to have an additional written record in which you record times and dates of special life events and achievements, and keep track of the family's medical history. This can be done in a notebook or as a document on your computer, or if you prefer you can buy a special book that is designed just for this purpose. We will cover this more in upcoming articles on History Journals and Legacy Albums.

By creating a Visual Legacy to pass on to future generations your great grand-children's knowledge of you will not be limited to name, location and date of birth and death, no they will be able to see those little characteristics that make you different from everyone else. Fun times and special memories will be easily brought to mind, not lost and forgotten with the passing of time. Through the photos and stories you so lovingly gathered future generations of your family will develop a stronger appreciation of and connection to their ancestors. Your printed Visual Legacy can be preserved for up to 100 years when you use archival safe photo products, and thanks to technology creating a digital version can keep your legacy alive for many more. 


1 comment:

greycloud said...

Very good first article. A lot of information that enticed my interest into looking for further articles for the many subjects that you covered.