Here Comes the Flood, Save the Photos (What Photos?)

Last week, Hurricane Ida tore through New York and New Jersey and one of the towns that was hard hit was one I used to live in, Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a sweet river town situated beside the Delaware River just north of the Capitol, Trenton, and across from its more famous neighbor, New Hope, Pennsylvania in Bucks County PA (home to many artists, celebrities and writers).

I thought about how much damage is caused when five-feet of water descends on your street in a flash flood, how difficult it would be to salvage what you can in the few minutes that you have to try and save anything.

Back some time ago, people were asked after a wildfire tore through a local Colorado mountain town, “What is the most important thing you saved when you had to evacuate on short notice?” The response was inevitably the same: The family photo albums. Family pictures are irreplaceable. Those are the things folks saved first.

But this was 10, maybe 15 years ago. Before cell phones and cloud storage and hard drive backups. What about now? I wonder what my former New Jersey neighbors saved first? Their computers? Their devices? Assuming their photos were all stored someplace in space, I suppose there was no need to grab the family photo albums.

Does anyone even have any photo albums anymore?

Do you save the family albums? Are there any family albums?

I guess some people might have family photo albums that were their parents. Earlier generations that actually put together collections of photos, those photo books might exist and need to be salvaged. But today? I’m guessing youngsters just grabbed their phone and they were good. That’s all they need–their whole world is right there.

Somehow, (and yes, I’m a card-carrying member of Luddites Anonymous), I miss photo albums. I miss flipping through them after friends come back from a trip. It’s a different experience than swiping across photos on their phone. They’re bigger, they are in a printed series.

When I am seeking out new clients and whenever I meet to show my photographs to an art director, to hopefully make a connection, the choice I have is to show work on a tablet or actual prints. I always choose real prints mounted on black boards because I know that the art directors ultimately spend more time with each photograph. There’s a tactile element to the work. They hold it in their hands and look at it as a single image.

Just like people in museums looking at a gallery exhibit spend more time when they have to step over for each new image than they do when they are just flipping through a photographers’ monograph or swiping through their photos online, by presenting with prints, I get a different viewing experience out of the art directors.

The bookshop industry was worried for a while that there would be no more books once the Kindle came out. Once there were digital readers, would that be it for books? But that didn’t happen. People like a physical book. Turns out they like the ability to get away from a screen and have the printed words to turn the page in their hands. Whil ein the park or sitting at the beach. Tactile wins.

I’m a proponent of printing our photographs, placing them around our houses on walls and bureaus, shelves and bookcases. To me, that’s a different experience, having photographs around my home that I live with on a constant basis that’s far different from screensaver images or photo files stored on drives or the cloud that I can access anytime, but rarely or never do.

What are we leaving for the next generation to see glimpses into our lives? Cloud accounts with passwords? Hard drives full of images? Will they ever access them? I suppose they will.

There’s something about perusing a handful of photo albums, maybe 10-12 that fit in a medium size box. There’s something else being given access to a hard drive with 100,000 images. Maybe more.

A friend of mine said that since digital photography arrived, she had counted 70k photos made in the last five years, which is significantly more than they had made the whole 20 years they had been together and married. She wondered where will all these images go, or will they? And that’s how many they had made up to that point–now it’s much more.

Another friend, who I suggested he print the photos that matter to him, asked, “What will happen to them after I’m gone?” My daughter who lives in a walk-up in New York doesn’t want them, she doesn’t even have room for them.

What will happen to our memories? This is the first generation that is putting all our eggs in the cloud basket, hoping our photos are safe and they will last 30-40-50 or more years.

Will they?

My youngest brother passed away last year and I was looking for photographs I made of him 10 years ago, and even with a pretty good filing system on backup hard drives for digital photographs, I couldn’t find them. They’re probably stored on some other master hard drive, but not the ones I have connected to my computer currently, and the photos were not easily accessed. They weren’t found at all and 18 months later have still not turned up.

My cloud storage isn’t currently updating–turns out I’m out of storage and they want more to keep filing my images. Also, it turns out my cloud is full of pictures of receipts and parking lot signs I made to remember when I got back from trips. It seems the cloud filled up with many images I had no interest in saving, but it did.

The way I see it, it’s a blessing to being able to make a lot of photographs but that blessing comes with a curse–management of all those photographs. That same friend with the daughter in the NYC walk up cares very little about photography these days because he says there are just too many. “Who wants to see my photos of the Rockies when there are a million online?” Though he was my photo editor and one of the top photographers at my newspaper, he no longer travels with cameras. Just his phone. “Nobody wants to see them either.”

He says the only photos he treasures, and it’s because there are only five of them, are of him with his parents when he was a child. Back then, people used to bring a camera out for special occasions only. As one lab worker said, “It was common to have a roll of film be sand, snow, sand.” The photos of a summer trip, a winter holiday and another summer vacation.

What will become of these photos? Does it matter?

Scarcity creates value. What we have little of–that we cherish.

A plethora creates indifference. What we have oodles of, well, so what? Who cares?

Here comes the hurricane/flood/wildfire? What will you take?

What matters most?

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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