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Category: photography

How to Prevent your Family’s Identity from Being Washed Away by Time

As I’ve attempted to curate my father’s photos, I’ve realized I’ve also taken on the much larger burden of organizing undated photos of my ancestors. It’s like putting together a puzzle with many of the pieces permanently missing.

I’ve continued to review and digitize the photo archive that I found in my father’s apartment after he passed away three months ago. I use the word ‘archive’ loosely.

Beyond the several large photo albums my mom curated for the three of us as I grew up, my extended family’s photo history was scattered about in various envelopes and small boxes. There was almost no organization, other than some photos being grouped together.

Some were still in envelopes with their matching old-time negatives. Other negative strips were unaligned and stuffed elsewhere. Almost none of it had any identifying information or key dates.

Please Do your Homework
The good news is this wasn’t the first time I had seen any of the pictures, like this photo of my father and grandfather on their trip to visit Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.
I did previously know where some of the family treasure lived. I had talked with my father about a fair number of these photos, and I had made copies of the old prints with my iPhone. So, I had some information, but not the whole picture.

But across these recent weeks, it’s still been like a puzzle, trying to figure so much out. The most frustrating part of this massive exercise is simply date stamping the pictures and putting them into a chronological order.

Many of my decisions have been based on how old people look in the shots. That’s been easiest when reviewing photos of my father and his brother as children. But it’s still guess work.

It would be so much easier if someone had simply written the who, when and where on the back of the photo. Even just the year would be gold.

Find the Family Historian
Photos of my grandmother Rae and her familyThrough the clouds that mask many of the details of my family’s visual history before I was born, there is one sunny spot that offers stunning clarity.

It’s owned by my father’s mother Rae.

My grandmother’s life was tragically cut short in her 30’s when my father was just a young child. So, I don’t really know much about Rae other than she was a teacher. But I’ve found photos of her that reveal other pieces of her life, ranging from her teenage years up until the time she died. And she dated many of her photos along with where she was.
Wow. I have to give a huge shout out to my grandmother for the important breadcrumbs she left behind for me.
Thank you, Rae. I can only imagine the visual story of our family you would have curated had you lived longer.

Dust off the Negatives
I’ve been using my Wolverine F2D Titan Film to Digital Converter to bring back to life the images buried in the old negatives I found. My efforts have revealed remarkable scenes I’ve never seen before.

Even though you’d think there would be matching photos for these negatives, I’ve only uncovered a few. Perhaps back then, people printed out just a couple of photos from a group of negatives. Or maybe the photos and their albums are simply long gone.

But the negatives survived. Though ignored, they were somehow passed down for almost a century. Now, I’ve got them, and I feel like I’ve accessed a time machine. I’ve opened a portal into the past.
Here’s a converted negative of my father’s family in the mid 1930s… my grandmother Rae with my grandfather along with my uncle and my father as children. (My dad’s the tiny one!)

Something tells me that Rae orchestrated this family portrait. She understood the importance of it all. (I think she would have really liked Instagram.)

Fill in the Gaps
As you might imagine, I immediately printed out and framed Rae’s family portrait. I placed the frame on a shelf next to our fireplace. And then I stepped back and took it in.

It was a bright spot in the storm of the past few months.

But something still bothered me.

Time to Start Leaving Breadcrumbs
Later in the week as I worked on digitizing other photos, it finally came to me. I had printed out and popped Rae’s family portrait into its frame, but I had made the same mistake as most all of my ancestors had… save Rae.

I didn’t write anything on the back of the photo!

I spend so much time curating my own digital family archive. Who knows how well it will survive the ravages of time, especially after I’m gone. But what about that photo I just threw in the frame?

Of course, that’s going to be the picture that somehow survives into the 22nd century. And perhaps my great grandchild will open up the frame looking for information on the back of the photo regarding these strangers.

I really hope that’s not the story, and somehow I can do better to ensure my family’s visual history gets properly passed forward.


Create a Letter in a Bottle
I walked back to our fireplace and picked up the frame… I mean I picked up my little time machine. I opened it up, flipped the photo over and wrote in the critical details.

I put the frame back together and returned it to its spot. This extra step took only 15 seconds, but it tethered the image to its past and prevents the identities of these precious people from being washed away by time.

I stepped back again, but now I saw something else.

I could see Rae’s family photo in a glass bottle, floating away in a vast ocean. It was properly provisioned for its long journey into the future.

Bon voyage.

My Life in 30 Seconds

A friend drew this wonderful pencil sketch of my face as the basis for the birthday gift piñata she made for my party. I’ve found that my birthdays have always been a time of reflection. Last year was particularly intense…

With my father’s recent passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy, which has led me to think a bit more about my own.

And I’ve been reflecting back on my journey to date. I’m talking way back and trying to take in my whole life. What’s my story so far, and how has it evolved?

One way I’ve gone through this exercise is to review the photos I’ve created and collected over the years. They document many of the moments that have helped to define me.

Create a Photo Montage of your Life
Five years ago, I created a little photo project, which I’ve decided to return to and update. It’s been really useful to jog my memories during this time.

The goal is to select just a very few pics that represent my life so far. And then create a photo montage in a short video. The result is inevitably influenced by the chosen group of pictures, which will vary each time I try this.

Still, these photos do represent one way to look at your life. And I’ve enjoyed this exercise to help regain a broader view.

My Life in 10 Seconds?
How many photos do you select? Well, one option is to squeeze down the number to how many can fit into a defined amount of time. Sure, if you don’t want to restrict yourself, the video might last for hours. But what if you just limit yourself to just a fraction of that?

When I first tried this five years back, I held my video to just 10 seconds, and
I explored a few different photo montages at that length.

Okay… That ended up being a little too fast, as my pictures needed to fly by so quickly you could barely register each image. Some of my viewers complained.

So this time, I’m giving myself the luxury of a whopping 30 seconds.

Barrett’s Birthday Photo Montage
Each birthday is a marker in time and one simple way to collect a group of photos to tell a story. So here are my birthdays…

Though birthday pics can look visually similar across the years (mine certainly do), when strung together, the collection acts as a sort of time machine.

For many of these photos, I tried to represent my age by holding up certain fingers. (I eventually gave that up when I ran out digits!)

Barrett’s Life Photo Montage
Without the guard rails of a specific life event to work with, which photos should you choose to represent your life? Yes, that’s a much harder exercise and one that will take more time to figure out.

I created this draft, but it’s hardly ‘finished.’

This montage offers more visual interest as it shows me out-and-about in the world (as opposed to stuck in front of a birthday cake). But it’s still missing a key ingredient in any life.

You’re Not Alone
Of course, it’s all the people you know. Your family and friends are such as important part of your journey. You need to include them in any photo montage that truly reflects your life.

So, happily, I’ve still got a lot of work to do on that front. Until then, my little photo montage is hardly complete.

What Comes Next?
No, 30 seconds is not a lot of time. And hopefully, it’s not enough for anyone to really work with.

If anything, it’s just a taste or an echo of something much larger… and longer.

But I’ve still found it to be a useful exercise to try to hone in on just a few highlights.

And perhaps, it might help focus me on what my next highlights could be.

Time machines can work in both directions.

I Walked Out of my Childhood Home for the Last Time

I grew up in an apartment on the Upper East Side of New York City. It’s where my father and I posed for this fun picture that my mother took decades ago. This place held so many memories…

This past week, I closed down my father’s apartment, the same place where I grew up. When I shut his front door for very last time, the lock clicked with a painful finality. I will never walk in again.

He’s been gone for almost two months now, and I’ve been spending all of my spare time going through his belongings and clearing out his apartment.

I powered down his Verizon Internet modem and cancelled his phone number that was in place for almost six decades. It originally began with an ‘R’ and an ‘E’ (reflecting the word, ‘Regency’) instead of the corresponding numbers ‘7’ and ‘3.’ I can still remember how he used to proudly repeat the classic version of the numerical sequence, “My number is Regency 7…”

Last week, the movers came, and his furniture vanished. And then I finally walked into the moment I had been dreading for weeks. His place was entirely empty.

And then I had to shut the door.

Yes, it’s been a punishing few weeks.

Saving Memories
My father’s apartment was his castle. He filled it with objects and things that he loved. It was his own little museum.
My father seemingly drew energy from his home. I was influenced by that growing up. How could I not be?

In some ways, I approached clearing out his apartment like a type of evacuation. I searched urgently to uncover the most meaningful objects and photos to save.

But I think I wasn’t rescuing his belongings as much as trying to save my own memories.

It feels complicated.

A Child of the Building
Plus, I can’t help but accept the reality that I’ve also been struggling with the emotional loss of this Upper East Side Manhattan apartment that I grew up in and returned to across my entire life.

The 21-story apartment building and I were effectively born at the same time. My parents and baby Barrett were among the first to move in. And my dad was the last original resident.

I feel a type of cosmic connection to this place. I’m not talking only about the 15th floor apartment. I mean the entire building.

We grew up together. As a child on Halloween, I roamed its hallways each year with a small band of kids. I was there when the building was dark for 25 hours during the New York City blackout of 1977.
I have walked through its lobby with my father across the decades and two redesigns.

I am a forever child of the building.

And now, I am cast out.

I’m just beginning to deal with the loss of my father. Saying goodbye to his apartment is another blow.

I moved out decades ago, but I never really left.

My Mom’s Kitchen Pot
During the apartment clean out, I also ran across a number of my mother’s belongings, not to mention everything of hers still in the kitchen, which was her domain for over 40 years.

She’s been gone since 2006, and much of the kitchen froze in time from that point forward.

Recently, back home in Norwalk, my wife was cooking chickpeas and accidentally burned them, and the pot was ruined.

The next day, I found myself standing in my mom’s kitchen, and the perfect replacement pot appeared right in front of me.

It looked almost new, and it was, of course, spotless. Even with a light coating of dust, my mother’s pot still sparkled. And it called it me. So I stashed it away in the black transport bag I had.

After all of these years, my mom was seemingly still looking out for me. Still anticipating my every need. (Yes, she was always an over-protective Jewish mother.)

But I really appreciated this imagined effort…that somehow she was able to reach out across space and time with this loving gesture.

And as today is my birthday, I think I’ll extend out my psychological projection a little further.

Thank you, Mom for your birthday present. It’s perfect.

Yes, both my parents are now gone. And I’ve walked out of their apartment and the original center of my universe for the last time.

I’ve saved some meaningful items, a few pieces of furniture that my family and I will repurpose and lots of photos that need to be digitized.

If there’s any kind of silver lining to this grueling experience, it’s this: Perhaps I don’t have to entirely say goodbye to my childhood home. The memories of my life there continue to live inside of me.
And the photos I’ve retrieved will hopefully help to maintain the memories for generations to come.

Time to Move Forward
So now what? I’ve done a lot of doing. My back is sore, and I’m tired.

All of the physical work is finally done. I’ve returned home. I am present again.

It’s time to start some emotional healing.

I think that’s the best birthday gift I can give myself.

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