Genealogical Data


by Ian Richardson

There can hardly be a person in the developed world who doesn't own some sort of camera, whether it be an ancient Russian-made Zenith, a modern can't-go-wrong automatic, or a single-use throwaway camera. Yet history may well look back on the second half of the 20th Century as a photographic black hole.

I write this article as a keen genealogist and sometime photojournalist, and as someone who is dismayed by the prospect that by the middle of the next century, few families will have a photographic record of their 20th century ancestors.

My concern is based on two broad levels: 1) the decline in the official family photograph, and 2) the poor archival quality of many modern colour photographs.

In much the same way that a proliferation of television channels drives down quality, we have seen a decline in quality photography over the recent decades.

Once it was the tradition to have a formal family group or portrait picture taken from time to time in a studio by a professional photographer. The taking of these photos was an event, and the results became prized possessions to be passed on from generation to generation.

Sure, those pictures taken in the early decades of photography had a certain sameness and falseness about them; they were of people who seemingly never smiled, and they stood or sat rigid-backed, carefully posed in a studio setting far removed from their real home environment.

For all their posed falseness, these old photographs were exquisite works of art, of incalculable historical and social value, and intended to be treasured.

Because photos are now so easy to take, and so cheap to process, the results are, sadly, less valued. Negatives are usually thrown away or lost, and little or no thought goes into picture composition, or whether the photo is worth taking in the first place.

The colour dyes in many of the photographs will be lucky to survive more than a decade or two - less if they are displayed in bright light. Mantlepieces and bookshelves around the world are already littered with colour photographs that have faded to a sickly blue tone.

The only professionally-taken photographs in the lifetime of the average modern family are a few taken during their school days - and perhaps a wedding album.

And wedding albums are becoming rarer, as fewer people choose a life of married bliss - or get married so often they decide the event is hardly worth photographically recording.

Now that a "professional" camera can be bought for as little as 100, so is within the financial reach of most people, couples frequently no longer think it necessary to call on the services of a professional wedding photographer.

If you want everyday evidence of the sad state of our national photographic record, look no further than the many fuzzy, badly composed photographs that appear in our newspapers and on our television screens whenever there is a murder or a child is missing.

Even newspaper obituary pages do not escape the blight of the fuzzy photo - demonstrating that even the great and the good nowadays often don't get decent photos taken of themselves.

Perhaps surprisingly, Amanda Neville, the Head of Museum at the National Museum of Photography in Bradford, does not share my concern and indeed is no fan of the photographs I prize so much.

"I feel those stylistic pictures don't actually tell you anything about the people in them.

"They fulfil conventions, but that's all.

"Now that photography is more accessible, we are getting away from that stylised form of photography and this has given us a very democratic, fuller record," Neville says.

She has a point, of course, but at the very least the old photos are better than nothing. And "nothing" is what we will have if families don't take active steps towards preserving their prints - and negatives - from the 1950s onwards.

Will digital photography save the day for the next century? Perhaps, eventually.

But digital still cameras remain some years away from being able to match the picture quality and price of cameras using traditional film. And in any case, will families take any more care with the quality of their digital photographs or the filing of the digital disks?

Colab, the Midlands photographic processing service, offers a useful digital restoration service, Caring Memories, but this is expensive (30 minimum for one 7" X 5" copy).

And it worries me that Colab encourages not just the restoration of photos, but in the same breath offers what is effect is the re-writing of history through a manipulation service, deleting or adding people and generally tidying up photos.

I had an experience of just this sort of thing recently when I sent Colab a wartime photograph of my late uncle posing with fellow crew members in front of his battered Wellington bomber. It came back with the bomber carefully restored to its newly-commissioned, unwanted appearance.

I make no apology for putting forward a pessimistic view about family photographic records.

All I can hope for is that this article will give families food for thought.

If they care about history, they will treasure and lovingly preserve their best family photographs on behalf of the generations to come.

There is still time, but not much.

Ends/August 1998

PS: I could also have urged that every family photograph be identified carefully on the back with the full names of those in it, the location, and the date. Then our descendants will not have to go through what we regularly do: trying to figure out the who, where and when of old family pics.

"by Ian Richardson (
First published in The Guardian, London, October 1997"

REF: email to by Ian Richardson on 3 July 1998



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