I promised to organize the family photo collection. Now what?
May 27, 2019 11:06 PM   Subscribe

I have hundreds of hard-copy photographs covering family history from the 1940s through the early 2000s. They are mostly disorganized aside from some very basic groupings and the majority are unlabeled. What is a good workflow for organizing and annotating the photos? How can I turn this collection into something meaningful for me and my family? My question is less about physical process (I figure step 1 is "get a good photo scanner" and I can go from there) and more about how to organize and present the collection in a way that makes it valuable to others.

For reasons that are not known to me, my late mother took most of our family photographs out of their albums and transferred them to collections stored in manilla envelopes. Some of the collections are helpful (e.g., she grouped pictures of herself from childhood and college years together) while others are useless (at least three large envelopes labeled just "family").

The collections have no internal sort order and there is duplication both within and between collections. Most of the photographs are completely unlabeled, and in some cases I will need to recruit other family members to identify the contents. Many of the pictures have, IMO, limited artistic or historic value (how many slightly out of focus pictures of trees does one family really need?) but I understand some of these might have sentimental value to others.

Ideally I would like to digitize, deduplicate, and annotate the whole archive, tagging with people, place, time period, etc., plus ad hoc comments. I would also like to organize and preserve the original photos in some way—rough chronological order is probably okay—extra points for linking physical and digital artifacts together somehow.

The primary audience for this project is me, my dad, and my brother, plus my brother's kids if he ends up starting a family of his own.
posted by 4rtemis to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is gonna take some detective work, but still feels do-able.

I feel like making sub-categories within the categories is at least a place to start. Like - take all the photos from one of the "Family" envelopes, lay them out and study them. Is there one thing that some of the photos have in common? Like, do ten of them all show the same tall dude with a mustache? Or do you have a dozen that were all taken in the same living room, or are twenty of them all obviously Christmas photos? Great - you now have a sub-category called "Family - living room" or "family- Christmas".

Then take a closer look at each sub-category, especially the holiday ones. You may notice that some kids show up in some photos and then start getting visibly older, or you may notice that some people in those photos start looking older and older and then aren't in the pictures any more. Now you have a rough chronological order for those photos.

Enlist your Dad for some of this. He may recognize "oh hey, that's a neighbor that was hanging out with us at Labor Day picnics in the 70s" - that's another key to dating a given photo. Or see what details you can remember about your own childhood toys - is there a picture where you see a Furby in the background? That also can roughly date a picture.

Another thing to consider - look at the physical properties of each photograph itself. Ones that have the same physical properties - size, paper quality/texture, whether they have a border or not - most likely were printed at the same time or at least similar times. That can be a further key to chronologically ordering things.

This isn't a one-fell-swoop Rosetta-stone kind of process; it may be an ongoing process. But it's the kind of thing where as you start creating some kind of structure in some smaller groups, over time you'll start seeing how to make connections between them that will let you build a larger framework.

Or you could keep the smaller sub-categories as your presentation. Like, one group that is nothing but "family Christmases" or "events at the house on Maple Street" or whatever. I have a section in one of my own photo albums that is made up of nothing but the annual snapshots-of-my-cousins that my aunt sent everyone when my cousins were just tiny kids, and when grouped together and laid out in chronological order it's kinda fun seeing them go from being a-three-year-old-and-a-baby to being a-seven-year-old-and-a-nine-year-old just in the space of a single page.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:15 AM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don’t have much to add in terms of organizing them, but as for what to do with them- we’ve made hardbound books with our old photos (via Shutterfly and the like) which were a great success- easy to store and easy to pull out and look at.

We also have a wall in our lake house filled with all kinds of family vacation photos, reproduced to fit in 5x7 frames.
posted by sarajane at 4:26 AM on May 28, 2019

Since you'll be eventually digitizing these, you'll hopefully end up with only a small collection of photos that you'll want to physically display. The rest you can keep filed in nice archive quality photo boxes, so pick up a few of those and use them as your working sort piles.

To start with I would go through and very roughly group photos by era, which you can usually gauge by photo format and color quality rather than image content. While doing this rough grouping you can match any duplicates together. Once you've got a super rough chronological sort going, you can give each physical photo an ID number based on the box it's in, so like, boxes are A-D and each box has approx 200 photos in it so there's B-179 or A-057.2 (which is a duplicate of A-057.1). These ID#s can be inputted in a spreadsheet as you work, so you can append metadata as you discover them, but the numbers themselves can also be changed, as you sort their order more specifically. Eventually you can mark the backs of the photos with the right ID numbers.

The endgame goal for this process would be to have the photos in semi-chronological order in your boxes according to ID number with placeholder index cards bearing the numbers of photos that you currently have displayed or in smaller curated albums. That way you can swap them out if you want to change things up, but also future family members will be able to take a picture from, say, your curated "Granparent's Wedding and Anniversaries" album and pull out the box photos around it to get context and details if they're curious. Within each box you can also store print outs of the relevant spreadsheet of metadata.

It is going to be a big job no matter how you go about it, and it'll be ongoing. But as you look at everything and begin to break them down into groups, you'll also be able to see it more clearly as a whole. Try not to get bogged down in little detail issues to start, just poke away at it chunks at a time, pulling in the help of your family when you can. Your father might write notes by hand on cards grouped with the photos which you can input digitally later, for instance. As you work on this, you'll begin to see the best ways to present the photos that will fit you and your family. But I wouldn't pick something at the start and try to end up there, because that's a great way to go off course and get frustrated. Just work with the photos for a while to begin with and start matching information to image.
posted by Mizu at 4:49 AM on May 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

I did this with some of my grandparents' photos. My grandmother's memory was poor by that time, so we were a bit fuzzy on dates, but I made heavy use of "c." (circa or "about") - and people's names were more important to me. I also could do some detective work based on the ages of children, clothing (both for period and for connecting two photos from the same event).

I also did the labelling for the photos using fullnames, e.g. Grandma was "PersonalName FamilyName" not "Grandma", and I noted how relatives were related (using my grandmother as the central person). The idea was that anyone after me might not know who people were by nicknames or relationships.
posted by jb at 4:55 AM on May 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Scanning the photos yourself would be time-consuming and tedious. I'd consider using a service that will scan your photos for you. I've used ScanCafe to scan negatives (and they did a nice job), but there are many other companies out there that do the same thing.
posted by alex1965 at 7:35 AM on May 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Here is one resource for archival materials. Here's another.

I would use an outside company to scan, too.

Who are you going to ask for help in identifying people in the photos? Are they comfortable with looking at images digitally? I have a cousin who is a research librarian (bless her!) and my mom physically sent her all the family albums to sort and identify people. Since she had already done it with her family photos, she had a lot of the cross references already. She sent the physical albums back when she was done and provided info separately (no writing in ballpoint pen directly on the photos, which is something our grandparents had no qualms about.)
posted by Lawn Beaver at 8:28 AM on May 28, 2019

Something like Flickr, or other similar photo sharing service, that allows comments might be quite useful if you have relatives who are willing to create an account and help ID individual images. Share with family, have them add comments (e.g. “This is Cousin Al, Bob and Clara’s son, just before he joined the Navy in 1968 or so”). Crowdsourcing this sort of thing among family can be really helpful; if you have access to an older relative sitting with him/her and going through them a few at a time together may be easier than showing them how to create an account and make comments. Change confirmed comments to tags on the photo.

A service that does facial recognition can be even more helpful as it can tag additional images of Cousin Al once you've identified enough examples of his face. Years ago I imported a bunch of photos my aunt had organized, using Picasa, and it did a pretty good job of identifying people in the images once I had tagged a few shots of my grandparents.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:52 PM on May 28, 2019

Get How to Archive Family Photos: A Step-by-Step Guide to to Organize and Share Your Photos Digitally by Denise May Lavenick. It and How to Archive Family Keepsakes are made for just your situation. They are both excellent.
posted by wdenton at 4:55 PM on May 28, 2019

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