An Amazing Project

The purpose of this blog was for my husband, Bill, and me to find things we could do that would make our life rewarding during the latest and most challenging portion of our lives and then share what we did. This became more difficult to achieve last year when Bill’s physical challenges led to him being completely homebound, tethered to his oxygen equipment a good share of the time, and with a short-term memory loss that had become severe. Many of the usual pleasures of our senior years were no longer available to us: things like travel, attendance at musical or cultural events, or even watching movies or television since the plot line would disappear from Bill’s brain during the commercial. In spite of that, we found one of the best projects of our life and carried out the bulk of it during that last year. And we had some of the most wonderful times together in the course of completing that project; times that far exceeded the pleasure we had received from many of the usual activities.

Most of us who are in, or are approaching, the final fifteen percent of our lives very likely have a large collection of both hard-copy and digital photographs. We have not only the pictures that we took ourselves, but also pictures we may have inherited from our parents or other relatives. I suspect that many of you, like me, had an entire bookcase full of photo albums. Our project started out when I took some of the photo albums out and decided it would be fun for Bill and I to look over the memories of our past. Bill’s short-term memory may have been severely compromised but his long-term memory was just fine. However, as we looked through our old photographs and had fun sharing the memories those photographs invoked, I could not help but notice that many of the photos had begun to deteriorate, some of them very badly. I also found that some of the oldest photographs, the ones I had inherited from my mother, were of people whose names I no longer remembered.

Both my mother-in-law and mother had left us several photo albums crammed full of pictures. They had been good about marking names on most of the photos and I very much appreciate that fact today. But not all of the photographs were marked and I found that I could no longer pass down these photographs to my own children, grandchildren, and nieces and nephews without the vital information of who the person in the photograph was. From that realization, came the idea for our project: I decided I was going to digitize all the hard-copy photographs, save them in my photo program, organize them by events and subjects, label them with names and captions, save them to a series of flash drives that I could give to our descendants, and rid us of many of the hard-copy photographs that were taking up such a huge amount of space, saving only the very old or very unique photographs.

Because I have some photo-editing skills, I also decided I would try to repair the damage to some of the older photographs and improve the quality of many of them through judicious cropping, color correction, shadow reduction, and the addition of names or captions. I purchased a small, dedicated scanner that could operate wirelessly and that could sit on the coffee table in the living room right next to Bill’s chair. The cost for such a scanner is quite low and I felt it was very important for me to be able to involve Bill in the process with the ability to sit near him. By the end of the project, I realized I had more than 5000 photographs in need of scanning and that not all of them were masterpieces. In fact, many weren’t very good at all.

Thus began the most difficult part of the process, and the part that required the participation of both Bill and me in order to be done in the most efficient way. The reason for this is as follows: I don’t know what the word for this condition is called, but I am the exact opposite of a hoarder. My children have a few words for this condition that aren’t flattering, but I like to think of myself as an uncluttered soul and I suspect the children might improve their opinion of this quality of mine when I’m gone and they have to clean out my house. Bill, on the other hand, was a far more sentimental soul who would not have disposed of even one of those photographs on his own. Many of our photographs were taken at the same events and there were multiple shots of the same people in the same activity. Some were of far better quality than others. Bill and I had some very lively discussions on the matter, but in the end, we were able to reduce the number of photographs that needed to be scanned down to 3200.

My plan, once the scanning was done, was to save only the most valuable of the photographs, the oldest and therefore irreplaceable photos, the high-quality studio prints, and the ones with so much sentimental value I couldn’t possibly dispose of them, and to discard the remainder once they had been scanned. I left the most valuable photos in albums: I now have just three albums rather than 16 albums. I put the remainder of the photographs that I saved into photo storage boxes (see picture) that take up a fraction of the space that the albums did. I was able to work out this compromise with Bill, only after I purchased 10 flash drives and managed to show him how much content each of them was able to hold. I have lots of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I wanted to have a flash drive with all the photographs available for each of them. Once I proved to Bill that this could happen, he agreed to dispose of some of the clutter.

The next phase of the project involved opening the photographs that had been damaged or that could be improved in my photo editing software and making the needed corrections. I used the program, Photoshop, because I already own it and I’ve had a fair amount of experience with it. I did some research on photo-editing software to see which is the easiest to use and which addresses the needs of a project like the one I’m describing best. The following four programs will all do the tasks I’m discussing here and they will all do it well. Each of them is considerably less expensive than Photoshop, which has many, many features that would not be needed on this project. The four programs that follow were the most highly rated programs in terms of ease of use and the least expensive: Photo Editor by Cyberlink, $59.99; Inpixio Photo Focus by Avanquest, $55.99; Photoshop Elements by Adobe, $103.53, and Paintship Pro by Corel $35.76. If any of you who are reading this blog are thinking of doing a similar project and don’t already own or have experience with photo-editing software, I would recommend checking out one of these programs.

The following are some examples of the types of corrections that I did on some of my photographs. Photograph number one shows a relative of mine whose first name I no longer know. My mother had written the last name, Scofield, on the back of this photograph, but had not listed his first name. This is a great example of why you should do this project before you get too old to have any elderly relatives left that might remember something like that. I know the name, Scofield, is a family name on my mother’s side of the family and I suspect that the person in the photo is my mother’s grandfather, Edward Scofield, but I don’t know that for a fact. As you can see by the example, I used a simple one-button color correction tool to eliminate the darkening of the photograph that had occurred over the years. In the final version I also added a note that the last name was definitely Scofield and that this was a relative on my maternal side of the family. That was the best I could do for this picture.

The next example is a studio portrait showing three views of my grandmother on the maternal side of my family. Her name was Genevieve Wight Cheney, and she died in her early 40s. I never met her, but I have always felt a strong connection with her. I have only three photographs of her and this one had been by far the best of the lot. This was one of the photographs that distressed me most to see again because it had developed some kind of creeping crud. As you can see by the example, I was able to use some of my rather limited Photoshop skills to remove signs of some of the damage. I lacked the skill to make the photograph look perfect again. But at least I was able to make some improvement and to guarantee that it won’t disintegrate further, at least in its digital form. This is one of the photographs where I chose to keep the hard copy (in spite of the creeping crud) because it’s priceless to me.

The next example is one of only four photographs that I have that show my father and me together when I was a child. Because my father died very young and because he shared my dislike of being in front of a camera, a photograph like this one also ended up in my “save the original” pile. Fortunately this photograph had not started to disintegrate, but it did have one problem that was easily correctable with one click of the mouse in Photoshop. This problem is also easily correctable in all of the other software that I mentioned earlier. I used the Shadows and Highlights menu item to remove some of the shadow from my father’s face and from mine. Just that one change made, in my mind, a tremendous improvement. As with all the photographs, I also captioned this one because someday I’ll have great great-grandchildren who have no idea who those people are if I don’t tell them.

The next example is another of those rare shots that included my father, this time posing with my brother, Pete. This photograph had begun to fade and as you can see had some marks on it. Again it was within my limited Photoshop skills to put more contrast back into the picture to reduce the faded look, remove the white blob, and to add some captions so that future generations will know who these people are. My brother, Pete, is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease and I will be able to pass on to his daughters (using one of those flash drives) all of the photographs that contain pictures of my brother and his family, another wonderful advantage to engaging in this project.

The next photograph is actually a newspaper clipping that was printed in 1971. One of the three people in the photograph is my sister, Genevieve, when she represented her high school on a television program called It’s Academic. The young man sitting next to her in the photograph is now her husband, Jim. She met him while preparing to go on this television program. She was on the panel to answer questions on fine arts and literature and he was on the panel to answer math and science questions. This picture appeared in the local newspaper and newsprint is notoriously vulnerable to decay and is of poor quality compared to most photos. This photograph had been carried around for years in someone’s wallet so it had crease lines down the middle. The pixels in the picture look huge by today’s standards and the photograph was faded. My skills did not extend to fixing all the damage, but I was able to reduce the appearance of the crease marks, reduce a bit of the fading, and caption it properly.

The next example I included in memory of Bill. It’s a picture of his first car, his most treasured possession when he was a young man. It is almost exactly the same car that my father owned at one time and it was the sole reason that Bill and I once owned a PT Cruiser, a car with a very similar shape to this car. This picture had no identification on it and had I not taken the time to scan it and to get Bill to tell me exactly what kind of car it was, future generations would have no idea (with the exception of car nuts) what make or model it was and who owned it. Readers of this blog score extra points if they can name the make and model.

This last example I included because it is one of my all-time favorite photographs and it was just beginning to show signs of deterioration. The picture is of my younger daughter, Stephanie, when she was 20 years old and had just given birth to my first grandson, Matthew. Stephanie’s husband was in the Marine Corps stationed in Japan at that time which is why Stephanie is wearing a Japanese kimono in the photograph. My grandson was born in Japan and this photograph was one of the first times I got to see him, so it has tremendous value to me. And yes, even a confirmed de-clutterer like me kept both the original photograph and the new digitized version without any argument.

One end result of this project is that all of the photographs that I saved in hard-copy form now fit into just three albums and the two colorful storage boxes shown here. And the bookcase that formerly held nothing but photograph albums now holds the remaining albums and the boxes and lots of other stuff as well. Some day, whoever has the difficult task of cleaning out my house after I’m gone (and I have been there so I know how difficult that task is), will thank me for this.

More importantly, during the last year of my husband’s life, in spite of the severity of his illness, we had some of the best times carrying out this photo project. Even when I was working on the computer to improve the quality of the photos, I sat right next to Bill, laptop in my hands, and shared with him the decisions I was trying to make and the fun of watching the changes occur. People might not think some of the happiest days of their lives would occur while their spouses were terminally ill, but that is exactly what happened. I’m glad I did this project while Bill was still here so that I could get his input and we could have the fun of re-living and sharing some of the fondest memories of our respective lives. And I consider that this project was not just fun, but important to preserve family history, so that I would still want to do the project even now that he’s gone. I’m hoping to be able to give out the flash drives by Christmas of this year. I’m still working on organizing the photos and putting them on the flash drives.

If anyone else who reads this blog has done a project like this, I would love to hear how it went. If you have used a software package I didn’t mention here but that worked well, please note it in the comments so that other readers can have your input on which one makes the job the easiest.

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