Now that my parents and my husband’s have passed on, our house has turned into a photo archive with me as KOI–keeper of images. Last year I gave a nice dinner when my siblings were here by way of bribery. Then I took out all of Mom’s albums and offered them to anyone who would take them. No one did. As for my husband’s family, I can’t identify half the people in the Simonson albums and neither can Mick. I should add that he is a talented photographer who recorded all of our travels, so the archives of those images–in assorted obsolete formats–add to the clutter. Sure and would ye ever like six hundred color slides of Ireland, each of them beautifully composed and in sharp focus? And then there are the big group photographs–reunions, anniversaries, funerals, weddings, class pictures, workforce bean feasts, and Christmas parties.
What should be done with photo collections? I can see that translating the prints and slides to digital format would be a good start. But there you are–left with a disc or memory stick with six hundred images. If the family for whom the photos were taken rejects them, what then? The historian in me resists destroying them. Can a writer make use of the photoheap?
Photographs of scenery come in two kinds–aritstry and historical records. When we traveled I kept having to ask Mick to tear himself away from the photo of a telephone booth he was composing to take a quick snap of the Eifel Tower. The telephone booth picture would take a blue ribbon at the county fair whereas the Tower would be dismissed as a cliche. I liked the phone booth, honest. But I also wanted a record of where we were.
When writers plan to set books in real places, “reminder” photos of the place can be useful. My first published novel was set in England, in Hampshire. I had done a huge amount of research for it, but I could not even start the writing until I knew the color of dirt in that part of Hampshire. That required a sabbatical leave and a trip to the UK. Mick took lots of photos. The dirt is pale gray chalk. Good thing I checked.
A collection of place photos can be invaluable. Being able to visualize the predominant tree in a forest, for instance, or the birds that show up there in midwinter, can bring the description of a place to life. The kind of cars on a city street and their condition convey a lot about the economy at a given place and time. Field crops, wild flowers, road signs–all nice details for a convincing setting.
It’s hard to see how a writer of fiction (as opposed to history or memoirs) could use the family albums my mother put together except as reminders of how fashions change or family resemblances recur. Some years ago Mick actually bought an album of photos from the 1890s. None of the people are identified, but a novel set in that era might profit from a look at the outfits they were wearing back then. The haircuts were wonderful.
I could use those sepia-tinted photographs to create a virtual family and tell their tale… Maybe I should just make a trip to the dump.