Digital photography saved my life. Or at least it helped me remember a lot of it

I miss the telephone. I really do. I don’t mean my iPhone, or I guess any smartphone. Those aren’t phones, they’re pocket computers that allow you to make telephone calls. No, I mean the old-fashioned, bakelite telephone. I spent hours on it as a teenager talking to friends. And then later, as an editor and writer, I spent a lot of time every day talking to writers, sources, friends who worked elsewhere.

Apart from the conversation, something that’s turning into a lost art, I loved the spontaneity of phone calls. You didn’t have to arrange a time to chat unless you wanted to. You just called, or picked up the “receiver” and talked. If it was a bad time—the universal excuse during my day job days was “sorry, I’m on deadline”—you just said so and talked another time. Easy as pie. I kinda laugh now when I’m working on a freelance piece and my clients won’t make normal phone calls. They email invitations with complicated instructions. Then you click on something and the allotted time pops up on your computer’s calendar, and it involves using an app on your computer or phone. Kludgy, no?

But I’m not a Luddite. I keep our home network reasonably up to date and recently made sure that The Spartan Woman replaced her 9-year-old MacBook Air with a new model. We’re about to jump ship and live most of the year as Italian residents, and computers and similar devices are a lot more expensive there.

I save my reverence, though, for digital photography in general—and my iPhone specifically. I have at last count some 37,000+ photos and videos on my little MacBook, and they’re easily accessible and fun to look at on a bright colorful screen. And to do that I don’t have to set up a slide viewer and sit in the dark, boring friends with my narratives. And having an iPhone—that non-phone phone—with a decent camera doubled the pleasure because I rarely forget important events or good times, or places I’ve visited.

Yeah, I take a lot of pictures.

The point was made clear by my weeks of scanning family snapshots. Most of them were stored in boxes in the basement gathering dust and who knows what else. Thousands of precious photos in envelopes were casually piled up in boxes, with no organization, and I’m racing to scan in decades worth of snapshots. I had to guess when certain events took place. It was relatively easy with my kids, because I mostly remember what they looked at during different stages of their lives. But the specifics were fuzzy–great t-shirts, where we had drinks in Montreal, my younger one running around on a Cape Cod beach. Our hairstyles. You get the idea.

Welcome to my laboratory.

The best part of the mass scanning was getting to reconquer my memory and my life. It was mainly a blur for almost two decades, as we went to grad school, partied, had our kids while working long hours (me) or dealing with disadvantaged kids as work (The Spartan Woman) and taking care of our charming young women while I coped with late night deadlines and headline inspiration that came on late night walks with the dog. Before scanning some 6 GB of snapshots, those two decades were in soft focus in my mind, a blur of newsrooms punctuated by vacations and big life events.

By contrast, everything from 2001 is crystal clear. That’s when I bought a decent digital camera, and I imported nearly every shot. (Importing photos even sounds archaic now. When I take a shot with my phone, it magically pops up on my Mac.) It’s fun to see the differences from the fairly drab digital shots 20 years ago taken by a Nikon or Canon point and shoot, and the near-pro quality of photos from my last two iPhones.

The quality, too. Here we have a tale of two families. TSW’s childhood and early adulthood was pretty well documented in film-based photo prints. Her father was a photographer, and a good one especially when his subjects were people. So there are good portraits and spontaneous action shots that are well-lit and framed. My family, on the other hand, used a bunch of nasty little Instamatics with their tiny film. So there’s hardly any detail in the shots to begin with. That flaw was compounded by the fact that my parents, sweet souls that they were, happened to be lousy photographers. My mother was better at it, but she was usually too busy cooking or looking after us to be bothered with pictures. My father was just indifferent and not that good at it.

Luckily, there’s Photoshop. Every now and then I’ll come across a photo that’s worth fixing. My mom’s teenage photo album in particular has a lot of gems, from rollerskating with her sisters on the streets of East New York, to my Uncle Tommy’s homecoming from fighting in Europe in World War II.

Soldier boy Tommy comes home to East New York Brooklyn in 1945.

Come to think about it, going through these shots and fixing them using modern photo editing software is the perfect marriage of old and new tech. I’ll share some more shots as I do that.

EDIT: My gear: A Plustek ePhoto scanner with ePhoto software—easy to use, you just feed the snaps through the front plate and they appear on your screen. Then you can edit, save or send the scans.

MacBook Air M2: I updated my computer gear. I do some video editing on it, too, nothing really intense but the new M chip MacBooks are really fast and the battery life is unbelievable. I’ve never plugged mine in because I had to, in 4 months

LaCie portable external hard drives. One is the primary location for the scans; I don’t want to fill up my computer’s hard drive with them. I back this up to another external drive, just because I’m superstitious about backups and lack of.

Adobe Photoshop: Apple’s system Photo software is pretty good with edits, but for real fun and games, Photoshop and its companion Lightroom are peerless for quick and accurate color correction and for teasing pixels out of faded photographic prints.

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