When the purchase of a new computer this month prompted me to transfer the files across from my old one, I realised with a start just how many digital photos I had accumulated.
The advent of digital photography instilled in me the blithe hope that I’d banish the growing stack of shoeboxes stuffed full of ancient snaps, teetering in a corner of my study. These pictures witness not only my progress from birth to adulthood but also the evolution of photographic technology over the last half century.
The earliest photos, of me as a baby, were taken on the family’s old box-style Kodak, where you had to peer down into the top of the camera at a reflected image rather than holding it in front of you.
By the time I was old enough to master that camera myself, they’d invented Instamatics. Chunky, detachable, flash cubes could be plugged into the top, rotating after each shot.
When I was about 30, the compact camera arrived on the scene. These made film changes easy. Instead of connecting a film to a spool inside the camera, you just dropped in a cartridge. Once the film was developed, the negatives came back in the same cartridge for easy storage.
I remember being buttonholed on a plane by an enthusiastic Kodak rep a few months before these cameras were launched: “Our new invention will change the course of photography for ever!” Famous last words: earlier this year, Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection, the pioneer of film-based photography vanquished by the digital age.
I got my first digital camera not long after the birth of my daughter Laura. Only the first year of her life is captured on traditional film, the rest is trapped inside my computer. Every time I open the My Photos file, I flinch, half closing my eyes to avoid recognising just how many there are. There are simply too many to manage. Of course, there is the handy facility to change the image names and sort them into useful folders – far better than writing on the back of a print with a biro – but does anyone exist who is really that organised? Certainly not in my household.
And yet with the thousands of photos that I have available at the touch of a button, apart from my wedding photos (taken by a fabulous local professional), I still only ever print and look at the few pictures that struck me at the moment of taking as instant classics. My favourites include an informal shot of my baby daughter and me taken at a party without our knowledge, the two of us laughing on top of a Welsh hill, and a cute shot at a farm park of Laura with a bunny on her lap.
But to be honest, the images I value most are not even in digital format: they exist only in my head. My grandma standing at her front door laughing at a joke we shared joke just before I ran off to school; my daughter lying in her hospital cot the night after she was born (I stayed awake all night gazing at her, convinced she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen); my lovely old friend Joe, blowing kisses and waving as I left on the airport bus from New York’s Grand Central Station for my journey home. As he receded in the distance, I willed that image to stay in my brain. If this was the last time I ever saw him, I mused, that would be a great way to remember him. I had no idea how prophetic that was: he died suddenly, unexpectedly, before I could see him again.
It’s like the old saying that radio beats television because the pictures are better. Or maybe I’m just bad at photography. Perhaps in future I should leave it to the experts – and hope that my brain doesn’t run out of storage space any time soon.
(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, March 2012)