Photo Albums: The Irreplaceable Beauty of Physical Reminders of Your Past

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There is a special, irreplaceable beauty to the physical, tactile reminders of your past that cannot be recreated on a screen.

There was this picture on the fridge of a family whose kids I was babysitting. It’s a snapshot of the husband and wife, sometime during their engagement or early marriage and probably on a date, sitting at a table. The picture is a close-up, and the woman is laughing, radiant. Beside her, the man is grinning. Neither is looking at the camera; both are full of joy. The myriad emotions captured in this one candid shot could take pages to tell, so instead, we simply sit back and grin along with the happy pair.

Most remarkable about this particular image is its physicalness — the fact that it is printed out seems to speak of a bygone era of film, darkrooms, the now-dusty photo album, and even the far-distant era of sepia prints.

Photo albums don’t seem to have much going for them. Bulky and often mismatched, they take up precious space. And when was the last time any of us even printed a 4×6 picture? Sure, we have prints for the family-room wall and pictures of the kids for grandma’s mantle, but why go to the trouble of starting, organizing, and maintaining cumbersome albums?

Simply this: There is a special, irreplaceable beauty to the physical, tactile reminders of your past that cannot be recreated on a screen.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with digitized photos. They are automatically dated, portable, and accessible. There’s room for hundreds of thousands of them in the “cloud,” and they can be enlarged, brightened, and even restored. But just as writing a note by hand affects you differently than typing an email, turning pages in an album is a different experience from skimming through pictures on a phone.

Sitting in the center of my grandmother’s living room for years was a squat, square wooden chest cleverly hinged so both sides of its lid opened, giving the impression of wings. Actually, the chest itself was rather uninteresting, but open those lids, and history spilled into your lap in the form of pictures. Hundreds of them — my grandparents’ honeymoon album, my mom in beautiful dresses sewn by my grandmother, and black-and-white snapshots of my grandfather’s Navy days filling pages upon pages.

After nearly 30 years of marriage, seven kids, and her mother’s moving in, my mother found that she’d gone from a single album of wedding photos to a bookshelf, that old wooden chest, and four boxes of loose prints in desperate need of organization and context. Then, two summers ago, my grandmother was diagnosed with brain cancer, and we knew we had very little time left with her. So we spent many days those last months poring over pictures with her, talking, laughing, and writing down names, places, and dates. Before my grandma’s memory faded completely, my mom was determined to capture this precious knowledge in ink.

So now, these pictures are a conversation between the living and the dead. It’s even possible to tell whose handwriting is on the back, and what stage of life they were at when they wrote it.

Pictures are little bits of history, held by you now as you wonder who held them years before you were born. Those wrinkled, stained, dog-eared sepia images of your great-grandparents from the Depression. Kodachrome ’60s snapshots of aunts and uncles. Wallet-sized images of your children in their yearly school pictures can be especially arresting as you sift through a stack of the prints and watch each child grow up before your eyes in a moment.

Our digital age makes snapping, saving, organizing, and sharing images so simple and immediate that we seem to be becoming indifferent to them. And while it is wonderfully easy to store and preserve photos electronically, consider the difference between opening up a physical album and pulling up a screen to flick through. A screen is a kind of barrier, a distraction separating you from those sitting right next to you. A physical photo album, spread out in front of you and a companion, is the story of your life. One picture elicits numerous tales.

Your ’80s high-school prom pictures. The toga parties you hosted in college. Your first car. Do you remember that person being at your wedding? Oh, those were the neighbors down the street we loved so much who had to move away! What a joy that homeschool field day was — do you remember that horrible sunburn?

Hold on to your albums. Bring them out and dust them off. Call in your wife and remind her of the dress you loved on her in college. Remind your dad of that hat he wore on hayrides. Cringe over that awkward birthday party for your great-uncle. Failed dinners, successful science-fair projects. A first lost tooth. A beloved pet, now long gone. Back when you had more hair, or that trip you took to Rome.

We all know the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, but it takes on a new meaning in the digital age. Much can be said for sitting back and feeling the weight of history as it rests on your knees. Open it, and have a look.

Sarah Schutte is the podcast manager for National Review and an associate editor for National Review magazine. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, she is a children’s literature aficionado and Mendelssohn 4 enthusiast.

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