The city of Portland in Oregon is famous for its quirky antique shops (and the even quirkier hit show ‘Portlandia’). In ‘Really Good Stuff’ on Hawthorne Boulevard, what appeared to be a jumble of junk greeted me as I walked through the open door. After letting my eyes adjust to the mess for a moment, I made out a typewriter sat on a paint-peeling wooden chair, a collection of wrinkled lampshades, a case of smudged snooker balls, stacks of old comic books, and even a set of chipped polo sticks. Shelves were rammed with pieces of china and wine glass sets. While my friend walked underneath a flashing ‘Open’ sign to go test out the tuning of a rusty piano, my eyes were pulled towards a set of old ‘Time’ magazines, and I crouched down to read the cover of the first one featuring former US President Lyndon B Johnson. As I stood up to let someone squeeze past, I noticed a battered photo album on the shelf in front of me, its bottom corner hanging over the edge as if it had been thrown there carelessly. Intrigued, I opened it up and sure enough, found myself staring at a collection of someone’s personal photographs. After quickly glancing over a few pages, I closed the album and put it back. It felt wrong that I was looking at the photos of a complete stranger. Most of them were childhood photos and it seemed almost predatory and intrusive. Why was the owner of this photo album so willing to sell their personal photos?
In a way, this was hardly extra-ordinary. People share so much information about their lives on the likes of Facebook and Instagram that letting strangers see photos like this should perhaps seem normal. If you can stalk a stranger’s photos on Facebook, why shouldn’t you stalk their hard-copy photos as well? Did the person who donated these photos to the vintage store genuinely have no desire for them anymore? Or perhaps they belonged to a deceased person, donated by the child clearing through their possessions who was unable to recognise the value of the photographs. For the older generation, photo albums are the first source for refreshing a memory. But for the younger generation growing up alongside social media, it seems these albums may be under threat from extinction. I just printed off 500 photos from the road trip that Portland featured in, and yet when I quickly want to remind myself of a particular moment from the trip, it’s on my computer where I will look for the photo, either in my file store or on Facebook or this blog…So what is the point of spending money printing off hard-copy photographs, before spending time organising them into pretty albums with accompanying captions?
My immediate answer is that in years to come, I may choose to show all my photo albums from years gone by to members of an expanding family. On a cosy evening family-gathering, I will want to show future children how their mum/dad/aunts and uncles/grandparents looked at a younger age. Everyone knows of (and perhaps fears) the moment when parents show new girlfriends photos of their son’s “little willy” in the bath, or new boyfriends photos of the girl celebrating her 6th birthday with a farm animal jumper and one front tooth.
But with the existence of film-free digital cameras, iphones and ipads, it appears that there is less of a practical need for physical photo storage, since photos can be uploaded to a computer and stored on websites such as Flickr and Dropbox. No longer is the hassle of driving to a friend or relative’s house necessary to see photos from so-and-so’s wedding or travels; photos can simply be shared with each other online at the click of a button, with no verbal descriptions or explanations required. (Plus, girlfriends will most likely have already stalked their boyfriend’s pictures on Facebook to check how nerdy he used to look…) In addition, the option of having photobooks created for you by the likes of Snapfish and VistaPrint means that there is no requirement for that exhausting manual labour of sorting photographs into sleeves, nor a restriction that leaves you hoping you counted the right amount of photos for the number of pockets available, before wondering where to put the remainders that didn’t make the cut. And as for that wooden frame on your bedside table displaying 1-3 permanent photos – why limit yourself to so few and go through the overtasking process of swapping them with others every year or so, when you could just a buy a digital photo frame and let the hard work be done for you? It all seems so much more time-convenient. Not only that, but storing photos online is image-convenient, because of editing tools that can be used to improve one’s appearance, subsequently creating an image of them that whilst false, may generate a more gratifying viewer response. Unflattering photos that embarrass or stimulate negative emotions can be wiped away with one click. Photo albums, it seems, really aren’t that necessary anymore.
However, I like being able to describe the context of a photo to others in person and have them do the same to me, so that I can truly understand the experience being shown. I like having the personal task of sorting my photos into albums and making captions for them – in fact, it happens to be my favourite part of keeping one. And I like having one special photo permanently in a rustic frame like a constant source of company. Most of all, I like the ‘me-time’ that creating a photo album offers – a chance to get away from people and technology and just do nothing but admire my splendid artiness and make myself smile. (So yes, I was being sarcastic about the manual labour of organising a photo album.) And of course, online photo storage sites have their flaws. Deleting a photo from your computer doesn’t mean it’s gone forever; such photos can still be traced from a hard drive, as the recent case of nude photo leaks by the 4chan hackers has illustrated.
Earlier this week, the EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger suggested that celebrities whose nude photos had been released by these hackers were ‘dumb’ for storing such material online. Critics suggested he was being insensitive to a female’s right to privacy, but Oettinger later reiterated that everyone possesses this right; he was simply stating that it was silly of the affected celebrities to store such explicit photos on the web, regardless of whether their store had a password system for security. In truth, I can understand where he comes from. Too much trust has been put in the safety of the internet, because of the norm of constant photo-sharing between people from opposite ends of the earth.
A photo album to me just seems that little bit more personal. You can put some of your best, most impressive images on a photo-sharing site and sure you might get a zillion all-important likes and comments. But in a physical-copy photo album, you can store ultra-private photos or those random snaps that are neither pretty nor understandable in their significance to anyone else but you, not having to worry about the reception they may receive following public exposure (and more importantly, how they’ll be used). Photo albums are primarily for the owner(s) of the photographs, making a personal invitation for someone else to see them that little bit more meaningful. The limited space of a photo album means that it holds the crème de la crème of your personal shots, so that the invited viewer gets a better insight into the memories that the inviter really values. And what’s more, there is nothing quite like holding a crisp, glossy photo in two hands and being able to examine every inch of it. Imagine yourself at 75 years of age, finding a dusty photo album in your attic and opening it up to reveal a treasure chest of memories. It feels a lot more special than the thought of flicking through some photos on a website whilst simultaneously browsing the local weather and your recent emails from Saga.
Perhaps the person who donated the photo album to the Portland antique store simply felt comfortable enough to share his or her life with a stranger, confident in having nothing to hide. If that’s the case, fair enough. I just hope the reason wasn’t because a personal photo album was no longer regarded as worthwhile. As well as her assets, Jennifer Lawrence’s nude shots have highlighted how photographic privacy has become a bit like an old antique – an item whose immense value is often unappreciated.