Should You organize your photo collection?

I've been at war with my photo collection for some time now. Though I have won a battle or two, the war rages on. What is this war, you ask? It is a war against my unorganized photo collection.

Over time I have developed a few strategies, and employed a few others to help combat a century of old pictures. In spite of making small inroads I still struggle with accomplishing the task of organizing and archiving such a mess.

This problem also holds true for my digital photo collection. Yes, it is easier to manage a digital library when compared with an analog one, but there are photos that don't fit into any category. And organizing thousands of images chronologically creates a lot of folders and projects with only a handful of pictures in each one. Throwing them into a miscellaneous folder doesn't work either. It just feeds the unorganized beast.

Creating a lot of digital pictures, and having boxes full of analog images makes it tough keeping things organized. With that said, I don't want to debate the analog/digital divide. Instead, I'd like to discuss the idea of organizing, digitizing, and archiving your entire photography collection. 

How It All Began

Photography dates back to the mid 19th century, but for a modern day geek that's not really relevant. Let's jump ahead to the mid 20th century when the average person could obtain a camera and take pictures without spending a lot of money.

Since that time snapshots of family vacations, holidays, birthday parties, and all sorts of other events are being created at an alarming rate. Each year the number of pictures taken grows exponentially.

In 2013 it was said that 350 million photos were uploaded to Facebook each day. With so many pictures being uploaded to Facebook and other websites, it's staggering to think about the number of digital pictures that never make it to social media. Then when we think about the countless analog photographs stored in the back of closets you can see how getting and staying organized is a problem.

After my father passed away I inherited boxes full of family photos and memorabilia from the past century. In them were thousands of slides, prints, negatives, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, World War I enlistment papers, World War II discharge papers, and much more.

After a few years passed I decided it was time to start sorting through all of it. Some of the earliest photos dated back to the 1920's, and a few may have been before that. 

After discovering this family treasure I decided the collection needed to be organized and digitized before a disaster destroyed everything. What I quickly realized was that too many of the pictures were pointless snapshots similar to what people take today. Old doesn't always equate to good.

Many were poorly framed, poorly exposed, uneventful, and just plain boring to look at. Most of these pictures were not worth the time it took to scan, and I wondered how much money was spent on the film and processing. It was discouraging.

After contemplating another organization strategy the best I came up with was to stuff everything back into the closet from which they came. I would tackle this project another day.

Another day came six months later when I mustered the motivation to begin again. This time I had a new approach. After weeks of sorting through much of this photographic detritus I had two piles. One was the keepers I would digitize, and the other was the junk I would toss into a box leaving them unorganized.

It was this second pile that made me realize one thing - most photographs are terrible including most of the pictures in the "keeper" pile. I think it is safe to say most of the photographs ever taken in the history of photography are terrible. Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer, said it best,

On an average assignment, I’ll shoot anywhere from 20,000 – 40,000 images. Only a small number (anywhere from ten to twenty depending on the story) will be published.

As few as 0.00025% of his photos are the best of the best. Now think about your pictures. How many are iconic? Few, if any.

Yes, there are people who do take great photos, and you may be one of them. I like to think I've taken a few good one's in my time, too. Truth be told, most photos are junk that no one cares about. I've noticed this when I take great looking artistic images of my kids, and my mom can care less about the composition. She just wants to see her grandkids, no matter how blurry, under exposed, and poorly framed they may be. 

Which brings me to the next point. Most old pictures are kept to reminisce about old times, to make fun of the styles, or to look back in awe at the elegance. To most people it is the content of the pictures that is most important. Not the artistry of them.

If it is the content of the photos that are so important to you then the fact is most people don't care about your pictures much the same way you don't care about other people's pictures.

To Organize Or Not To Organize

If you have thousands of images of all sorts of different subjects, and they are sitting in a box in the back of a closet, does it matter whether or not you organize them? The answer, like most things, is complicated.

I think pictures are most enjoyed shortly after they are taken. That may sound ridiculous, but think about it. People have taken pictures, in the modern sense of photography, for the past 60 years. 

Until recently photography looked pretty much the same. You loaded your camera with film, you shot through the roll, and then took it in for processing. You waited a few days, and after you received the developed pictures you could barely wait to view them. You showed them for a bit then tossed everything into a box in the closet.

I find this to be a strange phenomenon. You just took the pictures a few days earlier, yet you had to look at them the moment they were ready. Then, one hour photo labs were able to turn your pictures around in a hurry. And you still couldn't wait.

Today, digital cameras have accelerated this behavior. People chimp after each and every shot. You take a picture and look. Take another and look. Wash, rinse, repeat. It's immediate gratification. I don't know why people do that, but we all do it.

One of the problems created by digital cameras is that most of our images are no longer treasured relics. Maybe they never were. For the most part, whether analog or digital, pictures are just a bunch of meaningless snapshots that found their way into a shoebox and 40 years later we are told they have meaning. Perhaps - perhaps not. 

Which brings me to the point of this post, with thousands upon thousands of photographs stuffed into boxes that are stuffed into the back of closets everywhere do you really want to spend the time organizing, digitizing, and archiving mostly meaningless snapshots?

This job can take more than 2000 hours to work through, and when you get to the end you will look back and think, "What was the point in wasting all of that time on pictures I don't really care about?"

That 2000 hours is time you will never get back, and time you could have spent doing other, more important things. Like playing with your kids, making money, staying fit, or dare I say, taking pictures. 

The point is, organizing and archiving a lifetime of photographs is reliving the past, all the while you are missing out on the present, and not planning for the future. 

This first world "problem" has been gnawing at me for a few years now. I have been researching the best way to sort through and archive my rats nest of pictures. I would like to quickly search any photograph, but without a complicated and time consuming system it isn't possible.

What I have realized instead is that it doesn't matter because most people, including you, don't care about your pictures. If you did your own photo collection would have stayed organized from the beginning. And what's the point in organized pictures of people from 70 years ago who you may never have known.

I think we fool ourselves into thinking our past has some deeper meaning. When in fact it is much like everyone else's past. We have birthdays, weddings, family vacations, and everything in between - just like everyone else. 

But here's the rub, you don't care to see other people's pictures and no one cares to see yours. Most pictures, other than a few iconic images, are meaningless. The overwhelming majority are poorly framed, poorly exposed, blurry, and otherwise terrible snapshots. Many are just not worth paying attention to, and the good one's have a shelf life of about an hour on Facebook.

That doesn't mean we should stop shooting photography. It doesn't mean we should stop capturing history, and it doesn't mean what you shoot is bad. Rather, it means that photography is just a hobby, and shouldn't be taken too serious. As a photographer you capture images because you like to try new things, try different techniques, and it allows you to express your artistic talent.

As for me, I'm not going to worry as much about those ghosts in my closet. Maybe I'll get to them some day, but the reality is I doubt I ever will. And the longer I wait the more degraded they will become, and the less I will care as I rarely open the boxes. 

And that right there is a sure sign that spending thousands of hours archiving the mess of pictures is a waste of time. If I don't open the boxes now, why would I open them later? Maybe keeping them unorganized is better. I can sift through them later in life with my two boys and look at the glow on their faces when they discover pictures of their dad as a child.

Living in the past has never helped anyone move forward. Rather, you are trapped by the chains of years gone by looking at your life through rose colored glasses, when in fact the past was just as muddy as things are today.

It's not a big deal if you never get to the project of archiving your past. Live for today and look ahead to a brighter future. It will be here soon enough.