Combing the Catalog

I’ve embarked on a mission to regain control of my accumulation of photos, numbering over 10,000 in digital form.  Paper prints, slides and negatives amount to perhaps three times more than I can lift.  I can easily lift all the digital ones, however.

Like many people I know, my collection of digital photos has grown like an untended garden, the good and valuable hidden and strangled by the weeds of poor planning and neglect.  (A lot like my actual gardening experience.)

I’m still looking for a series of photos that I know exist, many weeks into my efforts.  It took years to create a mess this dense, and there isn’t a single-click solution that can take the place of my personal judgement as to how these photos relate to one another, or which ones belong and which ones should be tossed.

To make matters more interesting, I’ve inherited my grandfather’s photo archive (my mother’s father).  He was an avid photographer, who took many, many photos, beginning in the 1920s.  He shot primarily black and white, half-frame 35mm, although he also produced hundreds of 35mm full frame color slides.  He was incredibly organized; he built compartmented tins and boxes, with indexed reference guides, for nearly all of his slides, negative strips and positive strips (he had a side business copying 35mm film strips- negative to positive, positive to positive, etc.)  He also liked hand coloring his black and white prints.

He was clever and resourceful, building much of his own darkroom equipment.  He had a supply of WWII 35mm film in bulk tins; ASA 32 fine grain film intended for aerial photography.  I personally used that 50 year old film in the 1980s with excellent results.  He got me interested in photography when I was quite young; his darkroom was a place of magic.

He, in turn inherited hundreds of medium format prints and glass negatives dating back to the late 1800s.  His own photographic output waned in the 1970s to 1980s.

I also have my father’s negatives.  He was pretty busy with his camera from sometime around the beginning of WWII and continuing for decades.  Then, of course, there are my own.

I’ve thought a lot about this trans-generational archive.  I feel some weight of responsibility, although I don’t know to whom.  I feel that there must be some value in all of this- historical, artistic, genealogical- or maybe not.  Perhaps it’s just a dense block of unremarkable ephemera, a sentimental burden.

Mostly, though, I feel like it’s a potential source of wonderful images, waiting to be found.  That might sound funny, considering that many of them are mine, but I haven’t seen my own traditional photos (and negatives) in so long, that I must certainly see them in a new light.  Besides, changes in technology, my abilities and my sensibilities will likely imbue them with fresh latent possibilities.  Right?

Which leads me back to my quest to organize, categorize, digitize and utilize this trove.

I suppose some photographers are like me, and the enjoy post-exposure possibilities as much as capturing the photo in the first place. That was true when I had a darkroom, and still is in the era of Photoshop. Some aspects of film photography have no counterpart in the digital age. So far, pixels are a poor imitation of the subtleties of film grain, though that may change. The darkroom was a very personal space compared to a work station, and the images emerged more through magic than technology. On the other hand, today’s technology approaches the magical.

Though I still favor a chemical printing process for my presentation prints, some of the images on this website are available as high quality archival inkjet prints; see the ‘Emporium’ section.

My approach to the digital mess…

Adobe’s LightRoom has really been a game changer for me.  Computers have trained us to organize our files in folders within folders, according to date, subject, intended use or whatever.  It mimics the way we handle paper records.  It works, but it’s inflexible and restricting.

LightRoom acts as a proper database.  Your overall category (called a ‘Catalog’ in LR) can be as simple as ‘All my photographs, ever’, but by assigning keywords and other tags to each photo in the catalog, one can retrieve whatever set of images are of interest at the moment.

For example, if you have a snapshot of a stormy roadtrip in Uncle Drip’s old Cadillac, you can put it in a folder called ‘Relatives’ or ‘Road Trips’, and find that image quickly enough.  But suppose you’re also creating a collection of photos of classic cars, or one of lightning bolts.  Now you have to choose one, and only one, folder to drop that image into. (Or start duplicating files- a nightmare unto itself.)  Or what if you want to organize chronologically, and keep your smartphone images separate from your DSLR shots.  Using folders, you can’t; you have to choose one.

In LR, you can assign the keywords ‘Vacation’ and ‘Road trips’ and ‘Lightning’ and ‘Vehicles’ and ‘Relatives’ to that photo (note and, not or).  If you want to find only that photo, type in several of those keywords, and the resulting group of photos will likely be small enough to let you find that image easily.  More keywords, or more specific keywords, make it even easier.  If you want to make a montage of the storms you photographed, ‘Lightning’ will include that shot.  ‘Vehicles’ will include the Caddy and every other car in your Catalog.  LR uses ‘Tags’ in addition to ‘Keywords’ for even greater functionality.

By default, LR adds keywords based on file metadata, including the capture date, camera model, lens, exposure and other info, depending on what metadata your camera automatically records.  Even GPS coordinate, if you choose.  If you’ve never dealt with databases, it seems unnecessarily complicated at first, but the power and versatility gained are well worth the learning curve.

Pre-existing digital archives…

After I figured out that I needed to add keywords to the thousands of digital images I already had, I almost quit.  As it turned out, most of them were easy to process.

My first step had been to gather images from wherever they were stored- different folders on my laptop, desktop, external hard drives, internal hard drives saved from defunct computers, CDs, DVDs, even floppy disks.  (Many had sentimental or informational value.)  I dumped all of these,about 14,000, onto one external drive, all in one folder.

Despite the fact that I had tried to delete duplicate files and unwanted images as I gathered them, I was still plagued by duplicates galore.  It took me quite a few hours using utilities like ‘Fast Duplcate Finder’ and ‘Exifer’ to get rid of the bulk of the dupes.  At that point, I imported the remaining files into LR, and used a third party plugin, ‘Find Duplicates 2’, to finish the job.  I still occasionally come across strays.

Because LR allowed me to sort by camera, date, filetype, file size, and other default attributes, I was able to select groups of images to apply my keywords to.  I learned as I went, developed a keyword list useful to me, and actually got a lot of it done while watching tv with the family.  Previous to this exercise, I hadn’t paid much attention to setting up my cameras, and paid for my laziness with a lot of photos bearing the date ‘1/1/1980’.  I don’t think there was a consumer digital camera available in 1980.  I pay attention now, keep the datestamp accurate, and add my name and copyright as well, if the camera allows it.

When I created my master LR Catalog, I allowed it to create a chronological folder system on the storage drive.  I’ve read others who advise against that, but I can’t see doing extra work to change from a system that’s universal and endlessly scalable.  Besides, when actually using LR, there’s no reason to even have the folders visible- the database provides far superior usability.

Still to come…

  • Non digital archives
  • Adding to the Catalog
  • The editing workflow

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