Scrap It: An Historian Contemplates Her Imaginary Photo Albums

Scrap It: An Historian Contemplates Her Imaginary Photo Albums February 5, 2014

People approach personal recording keeping in different ways. Historian Rachel Cope, who clearly chose the right profession, kept her dolls as a child so future scholars could see how children’s toys changed over time. I approach record keeping by feeling bad about doing it too little.

A year and a half ago, when I learned I had cancer but did not yet know the prognosis would be positive, the weight of two unfinished projects immediately settled in to haunt me. The first was my dissertation. Most people already know what a dissertation can do to some of us sensitive souls, so I won’t elaborate. But the second receives less attention although it, too, can be fairly unsettling. I speak here of photo albums. I knew immediately that if I were to die I did not want to leave my children without photos, and so the buzzing space that task usually took up in the back of my psyche grew larger and more insistent. When my health returned I knew I had to settle the issue once and for all.

Aside from my lack of design acumen, I think the main problem is that I haven’t clearly identified my album objective, beyond having albums for my children to peruse. Will this project result in 1) a photographic essay depicting Mormon life in the early 21st century for future historians’? 2) An accurate account of our children’s years that will fortify them through life’s storms in times to come? 3) Photographic evidence of birthday parties, family activities, and Christmas mornings that we were indeed outstanding parents even if our offspring remember otherwise. Now that I’ve typed those out, the answer is clearly option three. In fact, maybe I should fake a few successful family outings and throw photo “evidence” in there while I’m at it.

Choosing option number three might not appear so obviously the right choice to some of you readers. Number two has much to recommend it, including the fact that it would herald the call of my religious leaders, to keep records so you and yours can remember God’s goodness in your times of need. For example, Henry B. Eyring, said“My point is to urge you to find ways to recognize and remember God’s kindness. It will build our testimonies. You may not keep a journal. You may not share whatever record you keep with those you love and serve. But you and they will be blessed as you remember what the Lord has done.” But here’s the reason not to choose number two: too hard. So I will choose objective three and hope that it will make some progress toward fortifying my loved ones and helping them to remember God’s goodness.

At this point in my narrative, I suspect that those people still reading either love producing photographic records and are wondering how to help, share my feelings of failure in this area and are hoping for redemption, or think my guilt over this has something to do with nefarious Mormonism. In case you are reading for that last reason, let me put your mind at ease. I have done extensive research on the topic and learned that LDS women are not the only ones to suffer on this account. By extensive research, I mean I wrote to two friends not under Mormonism’s sway to ask about their habits. In terms of current socioeconomic status, education level, and family size, these women and I have much in common. And they, too, have all of their photos on their computers, attractive empty photo albums in storage boxes, and unpleasant feelings about the gap between actual photo locations and their photo-keeping aspirations. “Yes, this does bother me,” wrote one in response to my query about her photo-keeping habits.

Back when things were inexpensive and simple, I loved making photo albums during my high school and early college years; but about halfway through pasting in my LDS mission photos, the infatuation came to an end. The second half of those photos are still in a gray Nordstrom shopping bag (16 x 6 x 12), on a closet shelf in my mother’s guestroom. When the process gave me pleasure, I think it was because standards were not high. I wrote with marker, cut a few words and pictures out of magazines, and I’m pretty sure I used plain old tape to make everything adhere along with those non-archival-quality books that have adhesive already on the pages. Yes, I made a scrapbook with non-archival quality materials. I stopped making albums altogether around the time enthusiasm for fancy scissors and cutting photos into shapes became widespread. Those extra refinements were too much for me (think, only think, how my anxious heart races now when I enter a papery establishment). A large part of what had made the process deeply satisfying before was that I was creating a cheery story about my past. If I did not look good in the picture, it did not go into the album. The album highlighted my happiest times and no one mean made it in. Actually, one mean guy might be in there, because I updated pages during the two-month period that we dated. Maybe by the time I am really old his presence there will fool me into thinking I compiled a more accurate record. [Danny-whom-I-also-dated-for-two-months, the good news is that you were not the mean guy. Of course you weren’t. The bad news is there is no photo of you in my album, which was truly unintentional.]

I know some women who love to memorialize their lives in this way. They enjoy the creative outlet and what they do is definitely scrapbooking, not just putting photos in albums. I wish some people like that would comment below, fanning the flames of enthusiasm for the rest of us. My dear high school friend – we used to compose our albums sitting side-by-side – estimates she produces about 100 scrapbook pages a year, not including the photo books she makes online for her children’s grandparents or to commemorate special occasions. One of the great things about this is it lets me off the hook. I know that she has documented the life of the middle class, Mormon corridor family during my lifespan. Plus, she will make those of us who fit that description look good; she is frugal, she is hardworking, she is a terrific parent. Plus also, her house is about seventy-five years younger than mine, so her albums are much more likely to survive fire and/or earthquake.

Ostensibly, I have now devised a system. I have decided against online publishing or making print books online. Those avenues are overwhelming to me, besides which I a) want a product that I can hold on my lap while a daughter snuggles in to peruse with me and turn pages. I prefer the kind of personal history that gets lost in a fire as opposed to the kind lost to outmoded technologies. B) In my limited experience, photos in the books that you assemble online and then order are not as vibrant or evocative as real photographs. I have identified the albums I wish to order, and they have individual pockets for each photo and limited space for commentary, which I hope will eliminate crises over design layout and decrease opportunities to obsess over text. I even found out the printing choices—4 x 6 borderless matte prints—of my friend Tammy (a designer who makes life’s every detail glow with appeal). Copying Tammy is always good policy. But the process of choosing which digital photos to print has stymied me for weeks, nay years.

Here is the problem: digital photos. Digital photos breed like nothing; rabbits seem sterile in comparison. Because you aren’t using real film, your frugality sensors don’t go off while you snap shots. But they SHOULD because with every snap you accrue time debt, future hours you will spend agonizing over which shots best capture the event or which events, if any, are worth remembering. My friend Holly, a designer with impeccable taste, doesn’t have this problem. A couple of years ago when I asked how she decides which photos to print she responded, “Almost none. Photos are almost never great enough that I want to print them.” When Holly dies, those close to her will be left with a single, beautiful photographic record in which they all look stupendous. I considered adopting Holly’s approach. I have only one or two photos of my great grandparents, a handful of photos of my grandparents’ lives, and not many more of my mother’s childhood. Wasn’t that enough? Why should I saddle future generations with cumbersome albums of such high archival-quality materials that they won’t deteriorate and offer those generations the gift of their freeing and irrevocable disintegration? I feel compelled to continue on with the albums because, honestly, I wish there were more photos, at least an album or two.

So here I am again, slave to my computer screen and the arrow keys, going back and forth, back and forth asking, “Which one is better? I look good in this one, but he looks good in that. They look good in this one but I only look okay. This one shows the mountains. Look at her crying on the merry go round. I love merry go rounds. Will she think it’s funny that she cried or will it make her sad? What if she feels betrayed that I put her on the merry go round? I better leave it out. But wait, if I hit delete, she will never know about this merry go round. The whole family trip will cease to exist.” You see, choosing which photos to print propels me into existential angst. It takes me right back to the time my mother and my pre-tween self visited the Bangerters in Walnut Grove and Megan and I curled up in blankets under her bunk bed and she told me to imagine nothing. It was black. Then she told me to erase even that. It was white. And I was torn whether to relate to the moment as evidence of the general impossibility of imagining nothing or just my personal inability to do so.

In an effort to move forward, to make these albums happen, I made an arrangement with Tammy that we would get together two Sunday evenings a month to work on our respective photo projects side by side. It would be like having an exercise buddy, only much less physically taxing. But our first meeting is scheduled for next Sunday and still I have not sent photos to the developer. In fact, the second folder that I did upload expires today at midnight. I managed to control many of the factors inherent to creating a photographic record, and I have defined my objective in doing so, but still I cannot bear to choose among the photos.

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