Recovering the past through photos

2015 looks like it’s shap­ing up to be the year that online cloud pho­to ser­vices all take a giant leapt for­ward. Just in the last few months alone, I’ve gone and dug up my ten-plus year pho­to archive from a rarely accessed back­up dri­ve (some 72 GB of files) and upload­ed it to three dif­fer­ent pho­to ser­vices.

First it was Drop­box, whose Carousel app promised to change every­thing. For $10/month, I can have all of the dig­i­tized pho­tos I’ve ever tak­en all togeth­er. It changed how I access past events. Back in the day I might have tak­en 20 pic­tures and post­ed 2 to Flickr. The oth­er 18 were for all intents inac­ces­si­ble to me — on the back­up dri­ve that sits in a dusty draw­er in my desk. Now I could look up some event on my pub­lic Flickr, remem­ber the date, then head to Dropbox/Carousel to look through every­thing I took that day — all on my phone. Some­times I’d even share the whole roll from that event to folks who were there.

But this was a two-step process. Flickr itself had boost­ed its stor­age space last year but it wasn’t until recent­ly that they revealed a new Cam­era Roll and upload­er that made this all work more seam­less­ly. So all my pho­tos again went up there. Now I didn’t have to jug­gle between two apps.

Last week, Google final­ly (final­ly!) broke its pho­tos from Google+ and the rem­nants of Picasa to give them their own home. It’s even more fab­u­lous than Flickr and Drop­box, in that its search is so good as to feel like mag­ic. Peo­ple, places, and image sub­jects all can be accessed with the search speed that Google is known for. And this ser­vice is free and uploads old videos.

Theo (identified by his baby nickname, "Skoochie") in a backpack as we scout for Christmas trees, December 2003.
Screen­shot of Theo (iden­ti­fied by his baby nick­name, “Skoochie”) and Julie, Decem­ber 2003.

I’m con­stant­ly sur­prised how just how emo­tion­al­ly pow­er­ful an old pho­to or video can be (I waxed lyri­cal­ly about this in Nos­tal­gia Comes Ear­ly, writ­ten just before our last fam­i­ly vaca­tion). This week­end I found a short clip from 2003 of my wife car­ry­ing our new­born in a back­pack and cit­ing how many times he had wok­en us up the night before. At the end she joked that she could guilt trip him in years to come by show­ing this video to him. Now the clip is some­thing I can find, load, and play in a few sec­onds right from my ever-present phone.

So what I’ve noticed is this quick access to unshared pho­tos is chang­ing the nature of my cell­phone photo-taking. I’m tak­ing pic­tures that I nev­er intend to share but that give me an estab­lish­ing shot for a par­tic­u­lar event: signs, dri­ve­way entrances, maps. Now that I have unlim­it­ed stor­age and a cam­era always with­in reach, I can use it as a quick log of even the most quo­tid­i­an life events (MG Siegler recent­ly wrote about The Pow­er of the Screen­shot, which is anoth­er way that quick and ubiq­ui­tous pho­to access is chang­ing how and what we save.) With GPS coor­di­nates and pre­cise times, it’s espe­cial­ly use­ful. But the most pro­found effect is not the activ­i­ty log­ging, but still the emo­tions release unlock­ing all-but-lost mem­o­ries: remem­ber­ing long-ago day trips and vis­its with old friends.