How to Organize and Store Photographs???

I have stacks of photo albums, boxes of loose photos, pictures framed on the walls and standing around as knickknacks, gigabytes of digital photos, photos stuck in books, pics left in drawers and stuck to the refrigerator, and who knows where else.  And like most people, if my house burned down I think I would morn the photos the most.  I have family photos going back 90 years.

Not only that, I have many sets of digital photos because I keep backing them up to multiple devices.  This might sound good, but I no longer know which set is the master set, and I’m not sure if any one set of digital photos is a complete set.  I put Picasa on my computer and it found zillions of photos on two internal drives and one external, but so far I haven’t found out how to use it to organize my photo collection.  I also have three more external hard drives that I used with my last four computers that also have caches of photographs.

And if my house burned down or got blown away by a tornado, all my digital copies wouldn’t help me because they are all at the house.  Sensible people scan all their photos and then back them up to online backup sites.  I was doing that until Mozy wanted to quadruple my yearly fee and I had to cancel my account.  So I’m thinking of new ways to get a handle on my photo collection that keeps multiplying like Tribbles.

However, it’s an enormous task and I’m big fat lazy person.  When I wrote the title of this post it wasn’t because I was offering authoritative answers, but because I’m looking for advice.  I want to spend some time here and think about the best way to solve this problem and hopeful get some useful suggestions.

I’ve been researching fireproof boxes and safes but I don’t know if that’s the answer.  Common fireproof boxes and safes aren’t suitable for photographs and negatives.  Most professional photographers recommend media safes, which are expensive.  Some people recommend bank safety deposit boxes, but other people don’t recommend them because even they aren’t completely trustworthy.  In other words there is no real guarantee of protecting your photographs, just various levels of precaution.

We’re living in a digital age so I’m going to go with digital protection.  I love my old photos that look old, but they look old because they are deteriorating from fading and discoloring.  I figure the oldest of the photos I might put in a fireproof box or get a safety deposit box, but the first thing I want to do is get them all scanned and copies given to my relatives.

The biggest problem I see facing digitizing my photo collection is how to organize the files.  What good is thousands of pictures with cryptic names filed away in a confusion of folder names?  I have lots of folders that say things like Washington trip (but there were two) and Snow Days (of which there were many).

When my mother died we had a slideshow at her funeral that I prepared.  Putting it together made me realize that I think organizing pictures by people might be a good organizing principle.  It was fun trying to find all the photos I could of my mother and then ordering them chronologically.  That’s very hard to do when people don’t write dates and locations on the back of  the pictures, but with detective work and the memory of many it can be done.

But this solution isn’t perfect because most photos have more than one person in them.  My solution to this was to repeat photos in each folder.  For instance I have a folder for my mother Virginia Little Harris and my dad George Delaney Harris.  Now I could have made another folder for Mom and Dad together, but it seemed redundant because if you look at each of their folders you see all their together photographs.

My first solution was to make folders for all of our photos which would be a massive collection:

  • 2 folders – couple
  • 4 folders – parents
  • 8 folders – grandparents
  • 32 folders – great grandparents
  • Many folders for aunts and uncles, and great variations
  • Many many folders for cousins of various generations
  • Many folders for friends
  • Many folders for pets
  • Many folders for houses
  • Vacations

I then decided we should divide the work and keep our families separate and each person would have a genealogy of photos:

  • Top Level Person
  • Spouses
  • Parents
  • Aunts and Uncles
  • Cousins
  • Grandparents
  • Great Grandparents
  • Friends
  • Pets
  • Objects (houses, cars, schools, etc.)
  • Vacations

So for my household we’d have two main collections:



That’s pretty manageable, and it divides up the work, and we can easily separate out folders to give away to our individual relatives.

The next step is ordering the photos within a folder.  Personal I like order them by year.  I’m very time oriented.  I like seeing pictures of people from when they were born till they die.  But to do this you have to name the photos by year, like “1928-04 Dad and great grandfather” or “1940s – xxx” or “1957g – xxxx.”   I use g for guess.  I’d love to know exactly when a photo was taken so I could prefix it with YEAR-MO-DA, but that seldom happens.

Of course this scheme fails miserably if you’re an art photographer and take pictures of everything under the sun.  Hell, how does a photographer of nude women organize their files?  Where’s that photo of the brunette with a emerald stud in her navel?  But hell, I can’t worry about such mind bending problems since my task is to organize family photos.

My mother put most of her photos in albums that have begun eating the photos, so my first step was to convert all these albums to archival quality albums.  That took days, but the process was personally transformative.  Looking at family photos for days on end conjured up endless forgotten memories.  This was a rather philosophical experience.  Each photo triggered a memory, or emotion, or a thought about a dead person or people I haven’t seen in years – and I looked at hundreds of them and that had impact.  The whole experience also instilled a desire to know my family better, but also made me wonder about that old saying, “blood is thicker than water.”  Blood ties me to so many people I never knew or know little, so just how important is my genetic connections?

When I was in my twenties I decided I didn’t want to be the kind of person that looked backwards, so I threw all my photos and mementos away.  And even though I had been into photography enough  to have a darkroom, I stopped taking pictures.  And for many years I didn’t own a camera.  And I’ve known other people that don’t like taking photos.  They want to just experience the moment without always trying to record it.  Now that I’m older I realize that isn’t a good plan.  Memory is a piss poor way to recall the past.  Living in the now means only having the now.  I’m older, and naturally looking backwards, and I have very few clues to help me see how things unfolded.  Luckily, other people took photographs, and my wife remembers much better than I do.

Organizing photographs has also become organizing memories, which leads to philosophical observations.  Life is very short and fleeting when all you can find of your past is a 25-30 images of yourself taken over 59 years of life.  One thing that’s amusing is I spend a lot of time on this blog remember when I first started reading science fiction, so I tried to find a photo from 1964 when I discovered the books of Robert A. Heinlein that have remained so memorable to me.  Here’s one that might be from that time, and a recent photo.  It’s hard to believe that so much of my mental kid world from 1964 is still surviving in the old bald head of the 2011 me.  By the way, my big fat head is blocking the view of the 12 Heinlein YA novels I ordered directly from Charles Scribners in 1967, that I first read in 1964 and bought with my first paycheck when I got a job at 16.


JWH – 3/16/11