The Value of Printed Photos

The other day my grandmother gave me an envelope of old family photos from my grandaunt. The photos ranged from 25 to 60 years old so it got me to thinking about the value of printed photos. I’m sure most of you have old family and vacation photos that have been passed down or shared through the years. There is usually a strong sentimental value for the people involved with the photos and it has nothing to do with dynamic range, megapixels, image blending or any of that tech stuff.

Old Print Photos of my Family

Old Print Photos of my Family

Print photos at least in my family, have always been among our most treasured possessions. Much of this is probably attributed to the fact that there is no more than one or two copies of these older photos in existence. It represents a certain time in our lives and all the memories associated with them. The photos take on greater significance every time a loved one has passed or a childhood a more distant memory in the rear-view mirror. I’m sure that it meant a lot to my grandaunt to give these photos to us. When I saw the photos, it took me back to my childhood to see my grandfather standing there and laughing at my great-grand uncle’s birthday party. Its a special picture because several years later he suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. And to see my dad happy and healthy in the bottom left picture because that’s the part of my childhood that I want to remember.

Contrast these standard yet rare family snapshots with the glut of technically amazing pictures we have access to nowadays on Facebook, cell phones, external hard drives, etc… I can’t imagine any of the digital photos nowadays ever coming close to having the same emotional value as what a print photo can have as time goes by. Everything digital just seems so disposable with very little shelf life by comparison. How many people will actually be able to find their original files a year from now, five years from now or 25 years from now? In the chance that the files are still available and compatible with future technology, will your grandchildren care to load them up on their computer? In my opinion this is a by-product of today’s internet-dominant society where everything moves a million miles per hour and the moment is never savored because there is always this pressure to find the next big thing on your smartphone or to be the most popular for something on a social networking site.

I once watched a Google Hangout video involving some popular photographers, and when the discussion came to having prints made of their photos one of them asked the others if it was easy to get photos printed because she had never gotten her photos printed before. I hit the stop button. This statement came from someone who was a self-described professional photographer, but clearly someone without much experience in photography. These are the types of photographers that some people are admiring nowadays, and that is a scary thought to me. But I couldn’t help but think how many other people out there are just like her. I’m not just talking about photographers but people in general.

Almost everyone takes pictures nowadays whether it is on a DSLR or a cell phone but most never see the light of day. Up until about ten years ago, it cost money to take a picture and you had to develop them all into prints or slides if you wanted to see them. It actually meant something personal to be able to share the photo album with someone or to present a slideshow. Now, we are hit with such a barrage of images everyday online that they just don’t hold the same emotional value. Even the prettiest images are basically forgotten as soon as they are made. Despite all the hype about connecting socially online, everything about it is so impersonal.

Print photos by contrast are personal. This is the value of printed photos. Try printing them once in a while. Or if you want to really take it to heart as a professional photographer looking to make your photos worth something how about try limiting each print to an edition of two? One to sell and one for yourself to keep within the family. 50 years later someone will probably still have the print and have a story to share.

5 thoughts

  1. Interesting thoughts, and I couldn’t agree more.

    A few years back I ended up with family’s collection of photos, some of which go back over 100 years to my grandparents days in Finland. There are thousands of them — some are familiar to me, many aren’t, but they’re all fascinating. It’s like time travel.

    All cultures and generations have passed on visual records of their story, whether it be cave paintings or engravings or photos. True enough, without making prints to pass down we’re cutting future generations off from an important connection to their past.

  2. Quite an enjoyable read and a good essay. Well argued and very personal. I appreciate the urging to learn how to print my own images. I too am one of those who has other people do the actual printing. I guess the masses used to do that a lot too. People would have a print lab make their small prints, but now there’s really no excuse for not doing it ourselves on our own computer. There ought to be more people printing rather than less.

  3. Thanks guys.

    PJ – must be nice to have 100+ year old photos. I’m not sure that anything that old exists in my family. That is an interesting thought about passing down visual records throughout civilization.

    David – to clarify, I meant have prints made even if it’s a 4×6 at Costco. The photographer I was referring to had never seen her photos in print before so that was what I was referring to.

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