Bringing Life into Focus

Why get organized? Why should I organize my photos? As a Photo organizer, I sometimes take for granted that we should just all organize our photos, but getting organized for organized sake is not going to be a good answer if that question should pop up from a potential client and I am unprepared.

Bringing Life into Focus was a talk I created based on my family history and personal experience of going through and organizing my own family photos. But it wasn’t the organizing that was the important part, it was the insight and perspective I gained as a result of that experience.

Starting down that road was interesting for me. I have been a professional photographer for many (many), years and back in 1996 I had formed my own photo agency. We represented about 30-40 photographers and licensed our images to a wide variety of clientele for editorial and commercial publication. All the transparencies were perfectly labeled and meticulously filed away in plastic sleeves, and our digital image files were embedded with meta data containing keywords, captions and copyright information. The workflow from photographer’s submissions to client request was smooth and efficient and was always being updated.

Now cut to my personal photo collection. My Grandfather had a photo studio on the Coney Island Boardwalk in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, my father was an amateur photographer and professional filmmaker, and everyone else on both sides of my family just took a lot of pictures.

They always had, I have a good number of family photos going back to the late 1800’s from Germany and Russia. You can add to that all the photos I have taken over the years, and when I started shooting digitally in 2005 after my son was born, hey fuhgettaboutit!

  My maternal grandfather, Boris Lenoff in Russia

My maternal grandfather, Boris Lenoff in Russia

  My maternal grandmother Fanny Lenoff in my grandfather’s photo studio

My maternal grandmother Fanny Lenoff in my grandfather’s photo studio

So my professional collection was perfect, but my family photos were a horrible mess. Why?

Keeping my professional files organized made perfect sense, as there was an obvious purpose and end game to it - making money. But with family photos, typically I would get back the envelopes of prints or plastic box of slides from the lab, have a good look at them, perhaps show them to family or friends, and when I was done with them they basically got thrown into a box or suitcase for safe (hah!) keeping. Maybe I put them into an album commemorating whatever it was, but mostly it was an attitude of “I’ll get to it later.” I can tell you I wasn’t the first in my family to follow in this hallowed tradition.

My subsequent relationship with these photos consisted of occasionally picking up a stack of prints and taking a short (or prolonged) trip down memory lane. I was essentially looking at just little snippets of my life: events, trips or certain periods, but there was no cohesion to these little jaunts.

 

As I got older, I found as many people do, a need for a greater perspective, some meaning to my life or whatever else falls under the heading of mid-life crisis.

It was around this time I purchased a Kodak PS50 to complete a large scanning job for a client. It also seemed a like good idea to start scanning the thousands of prints I had taken or collected from family members. And that’s when things started getting interesting!

As I scanned in these prints, representing over 100 years of my family history, I organized them as I would a client’s photo library, chronologically by year. What unfolded was a visual timeline of my life and that of my parents. Those snippets of my life were now connecting and acting as visual kindling for the memories and stories I had always known but never understood in the linear way they of course had originally unfolded.

I saw the baby pictures of my parents and watched as they grew up, and what were told to me as stories, became for the first time a realization that these were lives and experiences actually lived, some painfully, some joyfully. Understanding ones parents can sometimes be a lifetime pursuit and cost a fortune in therapy, this was proving to be far less costly and much more entertaining.

The same could be said for witnessing my own life unfold. We experience our lives firsthand through our own eyes, but to witness my own life chronologically through the eyes and lens of others, provided me with a perspective I never had before. It was as if I was going into my parent’s shoes to understand them better, and getting out of my own shoes to see myself more clearly. Pretty heady stuff for a bunch of photos!

I started to write down some of these stories and publish them to social media and my blog. The response I received was so positive, but for me the process of writing and editing the photos was inspiring and fun.

  My paternal grandparents, Gertrude and Kostja Zetkin’s travel papers to France

My paternal grandparents, Gertrude and Kostja Zetkin’s travel papers to France

One story involved my paternal Grandparents and their attempt to escape Nazi Germany before the war. As political targets in Germany they had made their way to France, but were eventually caught and placed in a prison camp set up by the Vichy government. If their identities had been found out by the German authorities, they would have been executed, but a sympathetic prison guard recognized them and helped them escape and smuggled to safety in Spain. I learned this from discovering their travel papers and then finding a newspaper article detailing the events.

Another story was how my parents met. My mother grew up in Brighton Beach just next to the boardwalk. She could simply walk about a few hundred yards to the beach for a day of sunbathing, which she was doing one afternoon when the man who would become my father walked up to her and started chatting with her. She told him she was actually waiting for a date, but he persisted in and even asked her where she worked. When her date finally showed up, my father left, but the next day he waited patiently outside of her place of employment and picked up the conversation with her where he had left off the day before. The rest is history.

  My mother on Brighton Beach

My mother on Brighton Beach

  My father in his British WWII uniform

My father in his British WWII uniform

Both stories really hit me how precarious the paths of our lives are, they are made up of little twists of fate that can determine not only the life of the person, but of all the people that might come after them. How different my family’s life would have been if not for the sacrifice of a lone prison guard, and if my father hadn’t decided to be a stalker that day (sorry Dad), my son and I would not even exist.

Many mid-life crises involve questioning ones decisions over the course of a life, but what I learned from my family’s history is that everything occurred exactly as it should have. If anything had been different, what would the ramifications have been? When it comes to life’s decisions, and heaven knows I have made some doozys, what would have been sacrificed had I done differently? I look at the photos, and the rich evidence of my choices and those of my parents becomes clear.

When viewed in the context of a timeline, a life can look a lot different. Decisions made and paths taken can appear more obvious as a result of the events that preceded them, and not something done in a vacuum. How easy it is to forget that when we look back and wonder how things might have been different. The connections between the events are as much a part of our lives as the events themselves.

The only evidence of all this was my piles of dusty prints and boxes of Ektachromes and Kodachromes that I turned into a family history. What at first seemed like an overwhelming and easily procrastinated chore, turned into the project of a lifetime. Lucky for me!

 The Legacy Project

  My cousin Michael (L) and myself (R) in my grandfathers photo studio posing in diapers bigger than our heads.

My cousin Michael (L) and myself (R) in my grandfathers photo studio posing in diapers bigger than our heads.