Mrs. Penfire’s Most Daunting Pandemic Project Yet

It’s now or never!

Here I am, stuck in the house for an interminable time. Why not?

The challenge? Thousands. Yes. Thousands… of pictures. They have been accumulating for my entire lifetime. It started with snapshots here and there. Tucked into a scrapbook or box of mementoes.

A couple of baby pictures. A few from high school. More as a young adult. And then, with marriage, the accumulation really began. The wedding. And honeymoon. Excursions. Vacations. Holidays. And get-togethers with friends. With children the trickle of film rolls dutifully sent off for processing and returned in bright yellow envelopes became a river, a flood, an ocean. And with the arrival of grandchildren: a tsunami.

For those of us (most of us) who aren’t serious photographers…and don’t really understand how cameras work or the fine points of writing with light, most of the photographs we take are merely snapshots. Compulsively snapped. With very little attention paid to composition or lighting. And thus, many of the photos we’ve slipped into albums, shoved into drawers (still in their envelopes from the photofinishers), crammed into boxes that we’ve hidden away on closet shelves, are not very good. Always there are one or two that are keepers. Perfectly capturing a smile or a moment. And so, like the gambler sliding one more coin into a slot machine, we keep on snapping. Hoping for another jackpot. A picture worthy of a frame!

What compels us to take so many pictures?

At this very moment–as I look at the stacks of photos I’ve semi-sorted, the stacks of boxes where they’ve been stashed for years, the dozens of albums where I hidden pictures, never to look at them again for years–I’ve spent a good amount of time asking myself this question.

Why? I’ve come up with several answers: Because we want to remember. And we are afraid we will forget. Because in fact, we know we will forget. Because want to be able to stop time. To travel back to the days when our grown up children were young children, toddlers, babies. We want to remember what our parents looked like when they were young. We want to own our experiences: the happy times, the silly rituals, the accomplishments large and small, the day-to-day experiences, as well as the special events, the outings, the gatherings, the holidays. We want to own the pride. And the joys of life.

It makes sense. And then again, it doesn’t. Because we quickly get overwhelmed. What do I do with all these pictures from that family reunion? We get paralyzed. This picture is wonderful. That one’s not so great. But how can I just throw it away. It’s the only one I took of Grandma that day. Sentiment overtakes reason. Fear rules. What if I throw it away and want it back? What if I don’t keep that picture of The Grand Canyon and forget what it felt like to be there?

In my heart, of course, I know I won’t want it back. And I won’t forget.

Even so, I throw nothing away. And now: I have this challenge. Not just our pictures for the past several decades. But pictures inherited from my mother, my Aunt Rosemary. My Uncle Joe.

Now what?

Now the day of reckoning has come.

Because if I don’t start weeding through all this, then I’m leaving it for my children. And just as with all the clutter I de-accessioned when we first contemplated down-sizing (twenty years before it actually happened) I tell myself: “It’s a good thing I’ll be dead when my girls discover all this, because if I weren’t already dead, they would kill me.”

With this thought in mind–and with an unknown number of days ahead when I will be going nowhere–I brought every single box and photo album into my office.

I decided the best way to start would be to do a preliminary edit.

Full disclosure here: I spent a good portion of my writing/editing career working for Polaroid Corporation. Much of that time was spent writing instructions (How to use your camera. How to take a good pictures) and customer service/troubleshooting publications (What went wrong with your picture-taking. How to do better next time). As an editor, I often had to make photo-editing decisions. So I’m all too familiar with the process of choosing the best photograph out of a batch of good ones—and quickly rejecting the ones that are not usable.

So in all fairness, you might ask, why didn’t you look at your own pictures and toss the bad ones out instead of keeping them ALL? Please. Don’t ask.

This first edit was less painful than I had anticipated. I went through all the albums and boxes and tossed pictures that were blurry, way too dark or too light; unflattering, uninteresting, repetitive, pictures of people I didn’t know, divorced spouses (or exes) of the people I care about, stupid pictures of random objects or unidentifiable scenery (usually stands of trees that are who-knows-where). With those I filled the small wastebasket in my office—9 pounds worth of bad photographs–and still counting.

Now what?

Good question.

A couple of years ago when I first contemplated this project, I purchased what I thought was a reasonable supply of very nice archival quality albums. I deliberately chose a loose leaf binder style, knowing from bitter experience that no matter how carefully I plan ahead when doing this kind of project, pages always cry out to be rearranged for one reason or another.

My hope is that I can tame this beast—sort this chaotic collection into some semblance of reasonable categories—perhaps by generation, for starters; from there, maybe grouped well, by group—family groups, friend groups. Along the way I intend to set lots of pictures aside to send people (this gets them out of my hair and dumps the problem on other people, somehow with the subterfuge of a cover note that makes it look like I’m doing something nice).

To be honest, I don’t know exactly how I’ll proceed. I guess I’ll go at this project in the same way I would tackle any writing project. With a general idea of where I want to end up. But no clear specifics on how I’m going to get there.

Long ago, to the front of my computer, I taped a quote from R. Buckminster Fuller. “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

I am not a genius like Buckminster Fuller. But I do find myself inspired by this quotation. My own version though would read differently, more like this:

When I am working on a problem, I never really know what the solution is going to be, but when I have finished, if it doesn’t feel right, I know that I’m not really finished.