Family photographs and shared meanings

Last year I completed a mammoth task of scanning photographs and duplicating colour slides that belonged to our parents, and sent electronic copies of everything to my siblings. The collection amounts to just under 7,000 images (about 300 black and white prints, 2,700 colour prints and 3,800 colour slides) which I scanned over about 28 months, leaving the equipment set up to scan little batches whenever I had spare time. There are some interesting technical and organisational challenges in handling a project of this size, but it has been well worth it. Buried in various cardboard boxes, envelopes and filing cabinets there is a wealth of shared experiences and meanings, like a kind of PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) for all the emotionally-loaded background a family has in common. Now that they are indexed by country, year, event and participants, it is easy to locate specific examples of “it feels like this”, without needing to identify and describe the feelings. The methods might interest anyone else with a heritage of physical photographs, along with the feelings and sensations that viewing them has had.

The digital age

People who started photography this century may have little idea that once, not so long ago, we used film negatives that came in rolls of 24 or 36 exposures. We sent the roll of film to a processor or took it to a photography shop once all the exposures had been used and waited to see the results, usually a whole holiday in one go – or sometimes many months after the shutter snapped.

These images were mostly made by my father between about 1950 and about 1990, with a few much older and a few at the tail end of film photography. Some are black and white box camera prints, most are colour slides and some are colour prints.

Although we had a fair idea of what was in the collection, having looked at them many times over the decades, there was little chance of finding a specific remembered image from amongst the many photograph albums, unlabelled envelopes, cardboard cartons and two filing cabinets.

Digitising everything made great sense as a means of making the content discoverable and a means of sharing digital copies with all the family. It also meant that we could add names of people and places whilst the memories were still available, although the older black and white prints of great-grand-parents and equally distant relatives were sometimes beyond our collective grasp.

Organisation and indexing

As a critical starting point, everything needs a unique index. Every photograph was given a unique reference consisting of my father’s initials (to separate this collection from my own and other collections), a “p” for prints, “bw” for black and white or “s” for slides (to know where to look if I want to check the original), a film reference code and an exposure number. A “film” might be a box, an envelope or a group of slides in the same file folder. I simply started with “AAA” for the first collection and “001” for the first image and worked forwards.

Once a film and each image have a unique reference it is very quick to later add place, date, people’s names and storage locations to a reference list.

I packed each film in identical envelopes or slide trays, labelled them with the unique film reference and boxed the whole lot away. I hope never to repeat this exercise, but can find them easily if I need to rescan and image.

Black and white prints

The only challenge with the black and white prints is the huge variety of sizes, qualities and textures. Most were easily placed in a standard flat-bed scanner. I aimed for a minimum of 6 megapixels (3,000 by 2,000), but usually higher – storage space is cheap and rescaling images downwards is easy. A density of 400 to 600 dpi was usually enough, but lower for some of the largest formal portraits and much higher for some of the miniature prints from the 1960s.

Colour print photographs

Colour prints were typically 6″ by 4″ and scanned well at 600 dpi, with little adjustment between images.

35 mm slide films

I chose not to scan slides because although my scanner was quite capable, it was taking 15 minutes per image at a reasonably high resolution. I decided to use a DSLR camera, a slide duplicator and extension tubes to photograph the slides against a photographer’s white light source. It was easily possible to photograph 50 to 100 slides and hour, as opposed to 4 per hour with the scanner.

The first big choice was how thoroughly to clean the images. Every single speck of dust, hair and mould shows in the reproduction. It would be possible to use various solvents, detergents and cleaning routines to remove these, but most would damage the slides for any further use. I chose to use a non-destructive clean with an air-blower, soft brushes and (only if dust was really stuck) a wipe with a clean, lint-free cloth. Everything else could be treated in a digital process later.

The second choice was whether to attempt to colour correct the images. We collectively decided that a large part of the charm of memory is that certain eras are Kodachrome, Fuji and so on. Every duplicate was made with the same fixed settings (sunlight white balance against a neutral light matched the slides most closely) to view the images as we remember them. I did adjust the exposure to brighten dark images and lighten dark images, but only so far as these corrected obvious faults. Again, it is easy to automatically or manually adjust white balance and contrast later on in software.

Back pain

I quickly felt twinges in my back sitting at a desk with a stack of images to my left and flat-bed scanner at my right. The bending and turning became painful soon enough to think of standing, so I set up a standing desk using a couple of storage boxes on top of a filing cabinet, until the scanner was at elbow-height while scanning. It also left me more space either side of the scanner for stacks of scanned and unscanned images without turning, and a place to leave undisturbed between scanning sessions. With a wireless keyboard and mouse I could easily sit at my desk to work or stand to scan.

This year Chryssa gave me a sit-stand desk mechanism for my birthday, which has a tuck-away handle to wind the whole desk up from seated height to standing height, without moving anything that is on the desk. It is superb, and has a desktop made from reclaimed pitch pine that feels wonderful to touch and work at.

Indexed memories

My parents (on the left) maintained a strong sense of their Scottish heritage, although they left Britain in 1956 and spent most of their working lives outside Europe. There are Scots – and Caledonian societies – everywhere. We were forever finding our own family names on bridges and engineering works in Africa and Asia. I feel a sense of rootlessness myself, born and raised overseas and never having visited Scotland until last year – the longest I have spent anywhere is 19 years in Cork, Ireland, where I am always recognised as a blow-in the moment I speak.

I have no memories of my father’s parents – my grandfather died before I was born and my grandmother shortly after I was born. This appears to be the Neilson family ice-cream van, part of a small grocery business with a family shop – Woodbines cigarettes and Cremona tinned toffee are prominent in the shop window.

I lived with my mother’s parents for a part of my early childhood and they then lived with us until their deaths. I remember the comforting smell of my grandmother’s bed, which I used to crawl into in the morning, the smell of her baking and her incredible down-to-Earth can-do attitude to everything. My grandparents darned, mended and fixed everything so their clothes and furniture were always soft, well-worn and comfortable from long use. My grandmother was a nurse from the end of the First World War until her retirement and my grandfather a foreman engineer in a (steam) roadplant factory. They both held the view that anyone could achieve great results and nothing was impossible.

My parents always said that their first child was Jhanka (meaning “peep”), a vervet monkey they rescued as an orphan after his mother was killed. They raised him like a baby, with nappies and a cradle, meals at the table and structured play. He lived with them into adulthood. Raising monkeys and small apes seems to have been a popular hobby or study in the 1950s and 1960s, but I don’t think he taught them a great deal about raising human babies!

Vervet monkeys, unlike apes such as chimpanzees, have no theory of mind. Jhanka’s favourite game was hide-and-seek, in which he would cover his head with his favourite blanket and assume that he must be invisible, because he could not see his seekers. He remained oblivious to other minds into adulthood, but was very social and very attached to my parents and some select individuals.

My two elder brothers and my parents with their teaching colleagues in Alexandria, Egypt. Egypt uses Arabic, French and English in different contexts, so language was very fluid in our house. My parents both spoke several languages, my father especially was fluent in Arabic, French and Urdu with a working knowledge of Pashtu, German and Portuguese. Being surrounded by people speaking multiple languages teaches that it is easy to communicate to strangers, no matter how badly you speak their language. I am not good at foreign languages, but manage to get by well enough to eat and travel in most places.

My two elder brothers feeding me in Cairo, Egypt, where I was born. I have no recollection of Egypt, but a fleeting memory of the journey home when large numbers of Europeans were expelled en masse after the privatisation of foreign industries and Egypt’s support for Yemen against Western powers in Aden.

My first Christmas in Cairo, Egypt. It is before any memory I have, but the light and mood is so evocative. Dawn in Middle-Eastern and Asian cities always seems so vibrant and active with motor scooters, cycles, chaotic traffic, street vendors calling out their produce, the Muezzin reciting the Adhan (the Muslim call to prayer) and the light, even on rain-filled days.

This is my first formal school uniform (that’s me in between my two elder brothers) in Lahore, Pakistan. The turban was an amazing confection made of 24 feet of thin gauze, heavily starched and tied around a stiff gilded hat to form an ornate fan at the front. We did not have to wrap and tie the turban ourselves – a travelling dhobi washed and shaped a blue summer turban and a grey winter turban at the beginning of the season.

I don’t know if the small footstep is mine or not, but recall the day in Cornwall when this photograph was taken. Colour films took so long to process that there was a remote connection between the moment an image was made and the moment it was first seen. Even so the smells of the seaweed, fishing nets and sea breeze are so clear, just looking at this photograph, along with the feel of the sand on the soles of my feet and the sunburn on my shoulders. We caught shrimp in nets and took them home, but I was horrified by the sight and smell of the living creatures going into a pan and refused to eat that day. I still prefer prepared seafood and am terribly put off eating it if I have to clean it.

I think the disgust shows in my face here at being forced to wear waterproofs found in our boarding house. We had just returned from Pakistan and had few clothes suited to the Cornish climate (this is Restormel castle). There is an unspeakable horror at the cold, damp sweat of the previous occupants of a garment, and the unknowns about who and where they are. As the third child I had a lot of hand-me-down clothes and uniform, but the horror has never passed!

My three brothers and myself on a volcanic cave in Awash National Park, Ethiopia. We look like the cast from “Stranger Things” in the seventies clothes. This cave is formed from a hardened bubble of lava and full of heart-nosed bats whose rich, black dung lies in deep drifts on the cave floor. The smell is fantastically earthy and calming, along with the silence created by the cave floor of soft dung.

Our house is full of flavours and textures, my favourite room is a pantry full of jars of herbs and spices. I don’t know if I am a picky eater (there are some textures, like blancmange, that I could never manage to swallow) because we have a very diverse palette. This is my mother and brothers at a roadside restaurant in Peshawar, Pakistan, in about 1980 (that is me closest to the camera, tucking in to the food).

If you have ever bought “Himalayan” pink mountain salt then it may well have come from Khewra or Kalabagh Pakistan, not from the Himalayas. This is one of the salt mines, which we descended on foot, clinging to hand ropes down steep tunnels. The interior was pitch dark, smoky from explosive blasting and stiflingly hot, with chambers up to 80 metres across. Our parents were always ready to explore the most amazing places without showing any sign of anxiety about the strangeness or unknown dangers that might lurk in there.

Shared feelings

There is such a range of feelings stored in this collection of images that it is not usually hard to find something that matches a mood, or emotion, or sensation, in order to help describe to people how the here and now feels to me. There are often no words to explain the emotional and physical sensations I have, so this kind of “PECS”-light is a great way of working through a situation and discovering words appropriate for it, or (at least) learning the words other people use in response to the images I pick.

2 thoughts on “Family photographs and shared meanings

  1. Well done, Stuart!

    You have done so much work on this project and I still haven’t got through all of Dad’s pictures, let alone remembered when or where they were taken.

    I have my own, substantial collection of black and negatives, white and colour prints, and slides, many of which cover the same period and events, and numerous rolls of negatives which I remember printing in the darkroom at school, as well as some which I never got around to printing.

    One of these days, I must try digitising them!

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