Are your old photographs a ticking time bomb?

Published 8:35 am Thursday, February 15, 2018

For most of my adult life, I kicked myself because I had carried a one-of-a-kind childhood photo (featuring me, my brother and our cousins) in my wallet until the snapshot disintegrated.

Thankfully, I recently discovered that my mother possesses a different photo from that same family picnic; but the close call still lit a fire under me to stop procrastinating about using my flatbed scanner to digitize the treasure trove of photographs and newspaper clippings that my mother has been digging out of trunks, boxes, albums and dresser drawers.

Millions of people have joined the preservation movement (I am especially grateful to my wife’s younger sister for untold hours of work), but much scanning remains to be done worldwide.

Email newsletter signup

Technology offers undreamed-of opportunities for preservation (check out those photo-montage picture frames and the heartwarming slide shows at funerals); but ATTITUDES remain an obstacle. Technophobes refuse to touch computers. Millennials accustomed to the ephemeral nature of Snapchat may not see the value of extending the shelf life of dusty old photographs. Overly optimistic folks may assure themselves “There’s always tomorrow to do the scanning.”

But every day, precious keepsakes (not just photos but also letters, award certificates and report cards) succumb to fire, theft, water damage, silverfish and the death or failing memories of those who know the significance of the scenes.

People need to persevere in scanning (or digitally photographing with their smartphones) the pictures. They need to be conscientious about backing them up on multiple devices/media. Cloud storage is one facet of a good strategy, unless you’re afraid the Russians will hack and Photoshop the files. (“Honey, this photo says it’s Great-aunt Matilda presenting her famous tater salad to Joseph Stalin!”)

I know some of you may be squeamish about giving these photos an expanded circulation beyond what the participants expected. But payback trumps privacy. (“Hey, Dad, you didn’t place much value on privacy when my CAR WINDOWS were all steamed up. Now the picture of you with the floppy toupee is going viral!”)

We are truly blessed in that we can give pictures long file names, recording for posterity the full names, relationships and exact location of the people in the photos (as well as spoiler warnings such as, “Hey, the hottie in the bikini is your grandmother, perv!”)

Youngsters can be TOLD about long-departed neighbors, your first car or your favorite teenage hangouts; but the addition of non-brittle IMAGES can make those anecdotes less abstract and more relevant.(“Hey, your uncles look pretty cool, one with a zoot suit and one with a Purple Heart. Did they play Grand Theft Auto? No? *Yawn* ZZZZZZZ…”)

It’s bittersweet to look at long-ago photos of fresh-faced Cub Scouts or cheerleaders. Bittersweet because with 20/20 hindsight one can well imagine the youths giggling, “The heck with baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes. I’ll bet it would be neat to experiment with the effect of 50 years of alcohol, tobacco, sun exposure and cheeseburgers!”

Looking at portraits from 75 or 100 years ago, one wonders what the subjects would have thought about their shot at cyberspace immortality. (“Shucks, I don’t want immortality. I just wanna be able to hurl lightning bolts at revenooers, like Zeus!”)

Get to work scanning those scenes of baby’s first steps or military unit reunions or horse-and-buggy excursions. But be careful out there.

“Just …one…more…fold…and I can…scan Grandpa’s…humongous…Publishers Clearinghouse…check! Owwwwwww!”


Danny Tyree welcomes email responses at and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades.”