Mundane Sacred Objects

John Scalzi

The picture above is of me (in the pink denim), my sister and my mother, on the occasion of the first day of school in, I want to say, 1977, although I may be off a year. I’d be in second grade that year, and it was a new school, so this is me trying to make a good first impression. Not only is the jacket pink denim, but so are my trousers, and also I am drenched in Hai Karate aftershave, although of course I don’t shave at that point. Nevertheless I made a good impression on at least one person, since I met my friend Kyle Brodie that day, and we are still friends now, which means he’s officially my longest running friendship. Good job, me and Kyle.

I post this picture today for two reasons. The first is it’s my mom’s birthday, so: Happy birthday mom, here’s a very 70s picture of us all. The second is that I think this may be the only picture I have of my second grade year. There were other pictures taken — 1977 had cheap cameras and film cartridges of 110 and 126 film — but over the course of years the photos were lost or abandoned or thrown away. Some of the pictures were put into photo albums, but I don’t have the photo albums, and I don’t know who does; maybe my mom does, but if she does they’re in storage. At the end of the day, this photo is it for me for the second grade.

Which puts it up on most other elementary school grades for me! I don’t have any pictures of kindergarten or first grade; third grade seems lost as well. You would think I would have some pictures of fourth grade, because I broke my leg that year and me in a cast seems like something we’d have documented, but I have no pictures of me in said cast. Indeed, in sum I think I may have a grand total of ten pictures of myself from the 1970s. Things get better in the 80s, because of yearbooks and such, but the 90s are hit and miss until 1995, in which an avalanche of pictures arrive in the form of my wedding. But, honestly, it isn’t until the 2000s that photodocumentation of my life really takes off, because a) digital photography happened, and b) I started taking pictures because I didn’t have to send them out to be developed. I have more pictures I took yesterday, than I have of my life in the whole decade of the 70s. Most of yesterday’s pictures are of my cats.

This isn’t a complaint, really. I don’t think I’m all that unusual. Lots of pictures were taken in the pre-digital age by a lot of people, but not a whole lot of them survive until today. I imagine for a lot of folks there is just a single photo, or a mere handful of photos, to represent whole years or even eras of their lives. Photos were and are physical things; they get lost, and misplaced, and thrown out. Even the ones that are preserved in photo albums experience rot and fading pigments, and eventually the albums themselves are thrown away, when the owner passes on and none of the heirs wants them or knows what to do with them.

And you might think, well, that’s yesterday’s problem — today we all have too many photos of ourselves. And on one hand yes, but on the other hand, really, no. Digital photos are even more ephemeral than the photos taken on cheap instamatic cameras in the 70s, because they are wholly contingent on storage devices. I took more than 20,000 photos last year with my dSLR and my phone. The dSLR photos are on an archive drive; the phone photos are backed up to Google photos. Of those 20K photos, maybe 700 ended up on Flickr, which is where I post the pictures I want to show to the world, and an equal number on Twitter or Facebook, and a couple hundred at most (not counting pictures of books) on Whatever.

Thing is: Hard drives break down and data rots. I regularly transfer to newer drives (and also store on multiple drives), but there’s always a chance of a physical failure costing me some or indeed all of those photos dating back two decades. Google Photos and Flickr are “in the cloud” but that doesn’t mean they are permanent in any meaningful sense — Flickr is on its third owner since I joined it, and honestly I just assume that at some point it’s going to close up shop. Likewise Twitter and Facebook; hard as it may be to believe, one day we may all get that note that informs us Twitter or Facebook is shutting down and that we should download our data if we want to keep it, which some of us will but a lot of us won’t, and even those who do often won’t bother to ever open up again. And then, of course, what happens to all that stored data and all those stored photos when we pass on one day? Will our heirs want them? Will they know how to even find them? Will they know the passwords?

I took 20,000 photos last year; unless I actually print some of them out, or leave specific instruction how they are to be preserved (and those instructions are followed), there’s a very good chance they will all be lost one day to digital rot and neglect. And I’m someone who is (relatively) careful with digital photos, backing them up on regular basis and making sure there are multiple instances. Does the average person? It seems less likely. Do you back up your photos? Do you print them out?

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that it doesn’t really matter how many pictures you take. It matters how you keep them. We may take exponentially more photos than we did in the decades past, but even so, it may still turn out that in the end we have just a few photos that will stand in for entire years or eras in our lives, with the rest lost — like photos in other eras — to time and rot and benign neglect. Photos are often mundane things in the moment but when you come across them later as the sole image from an entire time in your life, they can take on an almost sacred feel, the one small path back to a different time and place.

Certainly I did not expect this photo of me in a pink denim outfit to represent an entire era of my childhood. but here I am, with that photo, and only that photo. You — we — may yet be surprised which photos make it through the gate of time to represent today, and which ones don’t. There will probably be fewer of them than you think.

— JS

45 Comments on “Mundane Sacred Objects”

  1. I take nowhere near so many photos in a year, maybe 1500 to 2000, but then I’m using exclusively a cheap $100 camera. It works much better than my old $300 (maybe $500 in 2020 dollars) film camera. Still, I keep only those that I’d care to show to others (or which might have future potential as fodder for digital editing). So far, storage is not a problem, but it would be interesting to see how long they survive…

  2. I seem to remember having some pink denim too.

    I remember reading a piece a while ago about how the switch to digital photography meant that we were also losing a lot of serendipitous journalistic photos. Back in the day, photographers had to develop the whole roll, but now everyone does a lot of deleting in-camera so they don’t have to sort through thousands of shots. Which means that some overlooked detail whose importance didn’t become apparent until after the fact often gets discarded.

  3. My father’s photographs were 99% slides rather than prints. Mostly labeled, at least with year and city or year and person, but not always. My mom’s vision has been going for 20 years. Some time about 10-15 years ago, we did a slide show for however much family was visiting at Christmas or her birthday, and about 10? years ago, my wife snuck about 10 boxes off to the drugstore which digitized them onto CD, and we picked out a dozen or so from each decade for them to inkjet-print in 8×10 and bind into booklets. It worked really well. She could mostly see them, and tell us who was in them and what was going on.

    A couple of the pictures from when I was really young I remember only from seeing the slides, not from the actual events. My sister and I, aged 3-5, playing on a swingset in Montreal in the snow. And my sister as a 2-year-old sitting in a cardboard box marked “Mail”, which I was reminded of when Abi posted a picture of her daughter (late teens) sitting in a cardboard box with a caption about how she’d been hanging around with cats.

    Other formats of stored memories can be tougher to make work than pictures, because they need keeping the software or format information around. I keep a copy of late-1990s Eudora because it’s got the goodbye-soon email my dad sent to my family a few months before he died; I should go back and extract it because it’s really just /bin/mail mbox format – ASCII emails with headers stored in one big long file.

  4. Like you, John, I had few photos of me from those formative years (exactly a decade earlier) until my sister and cleaned out my dad’s store of crap. Since then, my dear sister’s managed to send me all kinds of embarrassing photos of me as an infant on to, I guess, 6th grade or so. (After that I was smart enough to hide when the camera came out.)

    As for long-term friendship, I met Bob before I started kindergarten and, though we’ve not often seen each other and are living on separate coasts, are still friends. He just retired and I’ll retire this year. That makes it almost six decades of friendship.

  5. DSLR ~ 10K – 15K / year
    Phone ~ 4K /year

    One backup on the PC (a duplicate drive), two USB drives (kept in a safe), Amazon could storage of all photos. Google storage of phone photos. My processed photos are on SmugMug. Some I dump on Flickr (when I remember).

    Very few photos of myself or my wife (very, very few).

    Honest, I don’t much care what survives me (we don’t have kids). My photos are for my use and entertainment. My sister will inherit them if she outlives me and then . . . poof!

    Strangely, they might survive longer than anywhere else on the blog since it will likely revert back to a “free” blog after I die (blogs of friends who have died are still up and running years after they died and the policy is that as long as no one deletes them, they’ll stay up — of course, WordPress too could cease to be).

    I’ll be . . . er . . . would be amazed if anyone remembers me even 10 years after I’m gone (few remember me now), and a photo of me won’t mean much to anyone without some context and a personal connection.

    Also, I don’t tend to look back much, hence I hold little curiosity for the past (unlike my sisters). If I see a photo of a much younger self, it often seems like I’m looking at a stranger (or a doppelganger) because there’s no associated memory of it

    So . . . I don’t worry about it much.

  6. Mom took all the family photos in the 70s. She still has all the prints, in boxes, somewhere. I haven’t seen them since she made them. Some of them I’ve never seen.

    I had a Brownie camera I bought at a garage sale for a quarter back then. Later my dad bought me a $10 Instamatic knockoff. I shot probably 20 rolls of film in the 70s and 80s. It was expensive and I didn’t have much money, or I would have shot more. I still have all the negatives and scanned them about five years ago.

    Given our socioeconomic status, if we could fast forward that family to today, I might not even own a camera because there’s no equivalent to the 25 cent garage sale camera, or the $10 Instamatic.

  7. Yes, what to do with all the pictures taken in a lifetime? Where to keep them, or post them, or eventually make them available to your heirs. How many of the pictures you see taken every day will never see the light of day or even be shown to the subject? And that is not including all of the videos. Who has time to watch, let alone edit the hours of videos shot starting with the 8mm cameras? Since I retired seven years ago I’ve been to 70 countries and all seven continents. In the fall of 2016 I toured southeast Asia and took almost 5,000 pictures but only one reminds me of the trip. The picture is of a friend of the shaman’s wife. Taken in Myanmar.

  8. +1 for Hai Karate. I received at least one Christmas or Birthday gift consisting of a little vinyl zipper bag with various products. If I were to try recreating it by alchemy, I’d try vinegar, 3-day-old orange juice, and just a dash of gasoline.

  9. We always had a ton of pictures because my mother, and then my younger sister, also put them in albums. When my parents died, I think my sister took them all. We do have plenty from the ’70s because we got married in 1970 and traveled to England (and, occasionally, the Continent) every summer after that, where I took a lot of pictures. These days, I guess we’re old and don’t see our families much, so I don’t take nearly as many. But I do still have some from my childhood, as well as my Bar Mitzvah Album from 1961. My wife was a teacher so has her yearly class pictures for most years.

  10. I’ve got huge boxes of photos all around the house. I keep telling myself I need to go through and sort them, but–no. It keeps not happening. These days, I also have huge files of digital photos on various computers, that I need to go through and sort and label and discard . . . I suspect that won’t happen soon, either.

    I did learn something kind of fun this year, almost by accident. If your elementary school took class pictures (and you still remember the name of your elementary school, and it’s still open): go to the school’s website. There will sometimes be a sort of “memories” page of all the class pictures your school kept (and they tended to keep copies) scanned and available for download. Mine had at least some of the kindergarten pictures going back to the early 1950s and almost all of the 8th grade graduation pictures. It’s worth a shot, just to see what’s there. And high schools these days sometimes put old yearbooks online, too, which can be even funnier . . .

  11. I did a photo book the last couple of years, and I’m going to start backfilling the past so that we have hard copies of the memories, as like you I’m sure all my digital files (backed up in 2 different places) will all eventually disappear.

  12. My computer died this year–taking with it the only copies of probably the last five years of my life. (I am not so diligent in backing stuff up. You’d think I would have learned this after having killed at least six computers and suffering the commensurate loss of digital image archives.) Instead, I’ve come to treat it like the leaves in fall. I appreciate them while I have them. I admire their once bright colors and happy flapping in the breeze, but when they fall to the ground to rot, I tread them underfoot and don’t think of them again. (I do however have a few precious once pressed between the pages of Facebook and stored on a back-up drive somewhere in my house. I really should try to find them…)

    I will never be called a historian of note because I simply cannot be bothered to keep track of my own life–noneless anyone else’s.

  13. You’re lucky. Many of the photos my father took of me and my sisters in the 70s survive and were digitized. I just looked at the last day of school photo from 1972 (black and white). Would have been the end of 1st grade, I think. Somewhat overexposed in the sharp California sunshine.

  14. The transience of electronica is why I gave a physical photo album to a friend as a collaborative christening gift for her new grandchild. She and her husband do lots of photos and I figured they would be lost in the future if a few were not picked out and physically printed. And labeled.
    The latter is also vital. I have a photo from my mum’s childhood of 2 elderly -I assume – relatives sitting on the foot step of a Model T with a picnic hamper and teacups. I would love to know who they were and where the picture was taken.

  15. Give it another 10 years, tops, and folks should have AI that is smart enough to index, search, and retrieve photos based on your request. And hopefully have it on some sort of triple redundancy storage device that lets you plug in a new terabyte usb every year or two and it just keeps moving the data to the more recent media.

  16. I started putting the stuff I really didn’t want to get lost on M-disk media, reputedly rather stable and long=lasting. Time will tell.

  17. Frugal archiving tip – email key stuff to your self, then file within your email app. Cheapo additional back-up and I have to assume that gmail etc. are pretty robust in their own right. (No, nothing is fool-proof, Fool R&D proceeds apace…)

  18. My father died in a car accident in 2008. He was never much for digital anything and so photographs of him are kind of like treasure.

    Keep that picture close, man.

  19. Hai Karate aftershave — that brings back memories to my nose. Also, at least in my junior high locker room, people liked to douse themselves with Jade East.

  20. My mother took a ton of pictures, and has been the family archivist for years. She has photos going back to my great-grandparents, which she has informed me I will inherit upon her death. A part of me is thrilled (we have lots of ancestral photos! and my childhood was faithfully, even excessively documented) and a part is worried, because I have no idea what to do with all that. Even less of an idea whether or not my children will want them, since I’m an only child who went on to have three kids of my own.

    As far as ephemera goes, we have a ton of our family/kid pics on computers and in the phone. I am considering buying a small printer just for phone photos, those little 2″ x 3″ photos, for personal reasons. We do have a scanner and a photo printer and boxes of actual photos, but a very few of them ever made it into books. Like most parents, I have guilt over the state of my children’s baby books; the firstborn has a whole book of his first year, the second is filled out up to his ultrasound, and the third is empty. Oops. Hopefully, they don’t ask too many questions about that.

  21. I am the same age as you and that same school year of 2nd grade 1977 there’s a photo of me wearing a green denim leisure suit. I swear parents in the 70s were angling for embarrassing photos.

  22. I know a number of people who have lost any family visual history when negatives/prints were lost in a move, destroyed in a flood or fire, ended up in someone else’s hands, or became so faded that they’re next to unviewable. Despite the need for back-up and file management digital photos can easily be more robust than physical ones.

    But I understand the problem with having so many. My kids were little back when camcorders became small and inexpensive enough they became a standard accoutrement for middle-class families. Despite the urging of many–including my parents, who had recorded our growing up years on 8mm movies–we didn’t get one. I told people that I’d rather watch my kids grow up in real time and real life than through the viewfinder of a camcorder, and I doubted anyone was ever going to go through the hundreds of hours of tape that resulted from all the filming, even to put together a couple of “greatest hits” tapes. I imagine by now the tape from 30-40 years ago is deteriorating quickly, no better than any cassette, 8-track, or VHS/Beta movie.. (Not to mention the challenge of finding a way to playback these days…)

  23. Anybody who doesn’t have embarrassing pictures from the 1970s, didn’t really live in the 1970s. We’ve all been there. And man, I miss those times.

  24. Blade Runner 2049 made a pretty good case for keeping physical photographs. :) As for me, somewhere in my dad’s house I think there’s a picture of me in the 70s, at around 18 months old, with some of my boy parts hanging out of my shorts.

  25. We bought my parents a photo scanner to digitize the 50 years of film (and nearly 20 years of slides!) that we have accumulated. Got some nice memories out of the deal as well as virtual piles of photos.

  26. I do think about that, on occasion. I’m 59 and never carried a camera, until I bought my first iPod, which had one inbuilt.
    I have taken more photos of my five months’ old kitten (that only has been living with me for two of them) than were taken of me in close to six decades.

    I lived in Prague for five years and most days in that city would have been good for tens of pics. I have, I think, five photos (somewhere) of that whole period, because a friend who had a camera and her own dark room, gave me some. (Of course, with the kind of Prague lives most of us lived in the Nineties, there will be many people who are still extremely relieved we didn’t have social media then.)

    I can’t say I mind much but it is a strange idea. Mind you, it’s not just personal data, like digital photos, that may not last as long as some, much older pre-digital photos. The way our governments and other institutions store stuff, there may be fewer archival traces left of us in a hundred years than there still are of the Sumerians.

  27. After Dad died I inherited his slides, which I had to sort through to figure out what to keep, and what to toss. He started taking slides in the late 1940’s. The keepers got scanned at DigMyPics. After that I found good homes for some of the actual slides with the California Historical Society, the archivist at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and Stanford.(Stanford also got his glacier map collection.)

    The best scans are online here:

  28. I think I take a somewhat different lesson from this story than most of you. As a teenager, in the 70s, I was a keen amateur photographer, and stuck to black and white so that I could develop my own film (I could have done color, but it was fussier and more expensive).

    I don’t have any of those photos. Or any from more recent years, until this millenium. My wife has a couple of photo albums. They’re mostly records of our home renovations! On the other hand, I have every single photo since the dawn of Android stored in multiple locations. Yeah, data rot will get it all eventually, because there’s nothing I plan to hand down to posterity, but it’s doing a darn sight better than hardcopy.

    btw, I work in marine biology — archiving survey data! I’m not so good about archiving my data.

  29. As someone who researches for fun, genealogical data, I’m always touched when I come across a piece of information about a relative (or anyone touching an ancestors life) from the past. Photographs or paintings are rare and precious things.

    Luckily for photos that you have kept, you can update the metadata in a non destructive way. See this program called MetaProxy ( , written by a chap very interested in micro history not just records and biological linkage. I think the tool is a great idea. Photographs are all well and good, but having received last year a Great Grand Aunties photographs in digital form, 90% of the people I have no idea who they are. Updating this information even only on those you think you might keep for posterity is vital for your heirs to see. Leastways thats how I view it.

  30. Same thing goes for other kinds of recordings. I had saved a voicemail my father left one day (no different than many others, but I wanted to always be able to hear his voice saying “Hi Miriam. It’s Nathan, your father”). I used the voice memo function on my phone to record it. When I got a new phone it transferred, but no voice memos transferred with the next new phone and I didn’t notice until after I had wiped and donated the previous one.

  31. I have (had) an older bother, and a younger sister – I’m the middle kid. There are hundreds of photos of my bother as a child – birthdays, Christmas, summer camp, summer vacation. There are about a dozen or more of me as a child. And, there are I think six or seven photos of my sister.. Seemed that my father lost interest in photography somewhere along the way. 😐

  32. I have been slowly digitizing photo albums left by my mother and grandmother. Some of them go back to my grandfather’s and grandmother’s family. These were dated to the early 1900’s. My wife’s parents kept far fewer photos and only went back about one generation. I’ve been pretty fortunate to be able to have access to such important if mundane glimpses of history.

  33. For digital storage my plan is to have it in more than one place. I’ll have it on a stick or two, in the cloud at several locations and locally on my desktop(still haven’t warmed up to laptops). Over time I forget but it eventually rises up somewhere. Oh and I still burn DVDs and CDs. Can’t quite shake the physical out of me. Why I remember rolodex and yellow pages, after all.

  34. My father was a semi-professional photographer–which is to say, he actually went to photography school of WWII on the GI BIll, worked for about a year in a photography studio before his partner absconded with the money, then worked briefly at Fisher Body, then a bank in Flint, Michigan, while shooting A LOT of photographs, had a dark room in the basement, had at least one show, entered contests, and eventually did a lot of weddings. When he passed away and my then my mother passed away I inherited a dresser filled with about 10,000 slides. My interest in digitizing them comes and goes–usually goes when I actually start, because my dad took a helluva lot of photographs and although many are quite good and if stock photography wasn’t already, y’know, a thing, much of it would be useful, but I found myself screening hundreds of slides of cityscapes from the 1970s vacations with no human beings in them and couldn’t imagine anyone except possibly historians would be interested. And I lost it in my last effort when I spent time going through what seemed to be someone else’s reels of vacation pics in Europe that someone either gave my dad or he bought (God, I have no idea why he would have). He would have been all over digital photography, though, but he passed before that became cheap and easy. I can only imagine how many there would have been, but they would have been a lot easier to share with my siblings.

  35. Hey, I loved my instamatic! It was great for snapshots which is all I ever wanted to take.
    The issue seems to be about trying to hang on versus letting go, and whether that’s really what we should or want to do. Life is organized such that we come and we go. I thought, walking in a cemetery once, that maybe the name and dates cover it. We are people of our times, whether we feel like we fit or not. Attempts at an epitaph fail to give you the whole person, or even the main thing about the person.
    Mostly I’m a hanging on person, myself, but I found myself resistant to a sibling’s apparent attempt to wax nostalgic over youthful times, sharing photos. I wasn’t a happy camper then and I have no desire to relive that past. on the other hand, I don’t want to dampen the sibling’s emotions. Our keepsakes are meaningful to us, in the end, and won’t be meaningful to others in the same way. But, hey, maybe they provide a focus for a conversation or an insight into that other person.

  36. It’s an incredibly hard problem. I consult and deal with long term storage and archiving of massive amounts of digital records and media. The problem is mind boggling when you start to think in terms of decades or even centuries.

    Format deprecation, storage technology obsolescence (Remember Floppies? Zip Drives? Hard drive interface changes over the years?) and media failure all play a role in planning. We used to be told optical media was forever, turns out that’s not even close to being true. USB drives are notoriously unreliable. SAN units with RAID can help, but are expensive and require monitoring and maintenance, as well as eventual replacement and data migration. Cloud storage is still expensive for large amounts of data, and that brings on the whole question of whom do you trust to be around in x-years and whom do you trust with your data?

    For now, as John described, rolling old archives into new media on a regular basis is the best strategy. Also consider having more than one duplicate storage plan using different storage methods. Plan on how you will update the duplicates in sync.

    And always plan for one of them failing!

  37. As a historian this is an issue that I think about a great deal. We are the most extensively documented era in human history yet so much of that documentation is more ephemeral than ever before – ones and zeros in a digital world entirely dependent not only on the storage media (the way physical photos are) but also on format changes and even power supplies.

    I ran a 19th-century museum for several years and one of my proudest achievements was getting a grant to have about 700 glass plate negatives from the mid-late 1800s printed on archival paper and preserved as artifacts. I remember thinking that it took me about half a day to find someone who could print 150-year-old physical negatives and yet I had ten-year-old computer discs that might as well have been beer coasters.

    I have no answers for this problem. I wish I did.

  38. As an adult, I didn’t buy a camera until my sister had children. To this day I will be somewhere and others start pulling out their cameras and I think, “Oh, should I have brought one too?”

    My parents didn’t take photographs, except for a very few when I was in my later teens. I once found a picture of a brother and wondered, “Where did that come from?” Sometimes I wonder if I am mistaken not to take photos, but then again I keep a journal which activates my memory.

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