When I was growing up, there was a stack of photo boxes in the front bedroom at my grandmother’s house. Some were marked with family names, others were labeled “sunsets” or “to be sorted.” A box of my baby photos and treasures sat in my parents’ attic along with a photo album, still wrapped in plastic, eventually meant to hold those photos. Photographs hold the past, but ordering them can start to feel like a task for the distant future. Eventually, we think, we will take the time to get all the documentation of birthdays and trips lovingly pasted into albums that everyone can sit and enjoy together. There’s no time like the present, so why not start organizing your photo collection now? This month we will look at some photo organizing basics with a little help from my own grandmother!

A snapshot into the sorting process

Make a Plan 

First, before buying anything, pull all your pictures in one place, digitally and/or physically, to get a sense of what you have. Set your intentions and goals, consider what materials you need, and decide how you want to label and sort your photos.

Dive in

My grandmother, Ruth Noah, has recently taken on the project of organizing her photo collection; she’s working her way through the approximately two dozen boxes of photos from the aforementioned front bedroom. I talked to her about the process and what she has learned by sorting through so many mementos of her life.

Ruth introduces herself this way: “I was born in Wisconsin, on April 11, 1930. I grew up with two sisters and one brother in a stable home. My dad was a cheesemaker and a farmer, and my mother was the best in the world. I came to California in 1953, following my fiance, Fred. He was also from Wisconsin. We got married in March of 1954 and were married for sixty-five years, raising three children—one boy and two girls. Our family later welcomed two sons-in-law, a daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. Fred died in May 2019, so I’ve been by myself for over four years.”

Ruth’s husband, my grandfather Fred, was the primary photographer in the family. Box after box of photos show what he was excited about: planes at air shows, architectural wonders from around the world, beautiful sunsets, and his family and friends. Because many of his pictures, and photography itself, were reflections of his solo hobbies and interests, Ruth has found she only really needs to keep the photos that reflect the things they shared. To her, this means holding onto the pictures “with people.”

“I like the ones with family and friends, and some travel photos too,” she says. “I discard scenery. My husband had a lot of pictures of airplanes and race cars that don’t mean anything to me. So I throw those away now and toss any that are poor quality, too dark, or blurry.”

A printed photo of family and friends in the yard.

One of the photos from Ruth Noah’s collection featuring family and friends, (left to right) Caryn Aasness, Dylan Aasness, John Aasness, Fred Noah, Steve Ferdinand, Jon Aasness. 1997. Image courtesy of Ruth Noah.

Set some intentions of your own about what you want to keep. Consider what you value and give yourself a goal of what you want to accomplish. This can be concrete: I want to sort three boxes of pictures each month, or more abstract: I want to work through the photos as quickly as I can while still enjoying the memories.

Reconsider Your Process

Set a point early on to revisit your guidelines and intentions, maybe after one box or one hour. Has anything come up that changes the process? Maybe you found many more categories than you expected. Or, perhaps you realized your timeline is unrealistic, or that you don’t actually need all the travel photos you thought you wanted to keep. It can be helpful to have these guidelines and goals, especially if you find it difficult to make decisions. Giving yourself an opportunity to recalibrate the “rules” you have set up once you have spent some time in the process can make those guidelines stronger and more relevant. A well-informed plan can continue to help you throughout the whole process.

A table full of sorted photos in boxes in Portland, Oregon.

Ruth Noah’s photo sorting setup. 2023. Image courtesy of Ruth Noah.

Keeping in mind what is most important to her—the memories shared with people—helps guide Ruth’s sorting process. Still, not every architectural photo gets discarded, “I keep the pictures that bring to mind a special memory,” she says. “I have a picture of the Eiffel Tower that I took. Fred usually took all the pictures on our trips. I know that we slept in a train station the night before and we were just hurrying around the city, and it’s not an excellent picture. I’m not a good photographer, but it is a special picture. So I think that one had meaning for me. Still, I have some great pictures from Lake Tahoe, too. But you know, they’re all the same. There’s the lake and there’s the island, so there’s no point in keeping all of them. If I want to see it, I can always Google it.”

An image search result for Lake Tahoe

Image search results for Lake Tahoe. 2023. Image courtesy of Google.

Keep Only the Keepers

Decide what to do with the photos you don’t need. Lots of photos may end up in the trash. When you throw away photos, remember that glossy printed photographs have to go in the garbage can; they are not recyclable. Digital photos can go in the digital “recycle bin.” You can also give photos to others who want them. Send print copies in the mail or share digital photos on the web or over email before deleting them.

Ruth is sorting most of her photos into envelopes or boxes for different people and will eventually give each family or individual their box. Other photos she sends more quickly. “If I come across a picture that just strikes me as special, I send it to the person right then. Fred’s sister, Ev, recently went into assisted living, so I knew it was a difficult time for her. I came across a picture of her and her husband dancing at one of their kids’ weddings, and they were so happy. It was such a good picture. So I sent it right away.

“My friend Joan moved away to North Carolina and after she was settled, she realized that there was a box of family photos missing. They hadn’t noticed in time to claim or question it, they were just gone. So I’m definitely saving every picture that includes their family, and I’m going to send those to her. But a lot of them I’m just categorizing for now. Later, I’ll talk to the person and say ‘Do you want these pictures?’”

Remember that when you give a gift, like sending your adult nephew the pictures you took of his fourth birthday, it is the gift receiver’s decision what to do with the gift. He may keep the photos in his collection, look at them and show them to friends before tossing them out, or make scans and throw the original prints away. Or, he might never look at them because the pictures are a painful reminder of the toy dinosaur he did not receive at that fateful fourth birthday. When you give a gift, let the receiver know that it is not an obligation. Remember this for yourself as well. Just because someone gifted you something does not mean you are required to keep it forever. You can appreciate the item, the gesture, and the person and still decide not to keep the object itself.

Get the Right Tools 

Ruth is using photo-safe photo boxes and new, uniform envelopes. She is removing photographs from the unruly envelopes they came in, throwing out the negatives, and tossing duplicates. Whichever supplies you use, make sure they are photo-safe. Keywords to look for are “acid-free,” “archival,” and “lignin-free.”

For your digital photos, reliable hard drives, online cloud accounts, and lots of digital “folders” will be your friends.

Back up your archive, ideally in three ways, and maintain your backup and organization system regularly as you take new pictures. For digital collections, consider investing in a product like Picture Keeper, which collects all the images from your computer into one place for easy organization.

If you want to be able to easily locate a specific photo on your computer, use a consistent and thorough naming convention. For example, label photos by when they were taken: YYYY_MM_DD. Another option is to group your digital photos into folders based on date, person, location, or theme. To appreciate a selection of your pictures off the screen, you can have photo books printed, add them to a scrapbook, or frame some of your favorites.

Find unique ways to appreciate your photos. Ruth has a large mirror in her entryway where she tapes pictures and cards for all her visitors to see. Use a bulletin board, mantelpiece, or whatever space is right for you. When I spoke with her, Ruth’s mirror featured a collection of photos from a trip to Paris, and a photo of my brother helping her make cookies. This is a fun way to track your progress during your photo sorting journey and show off the photos in a way that is less permanent and easier than framing. If you’re a digital native, think of this as being similar to posting on your Instagram Story instead of to the Grid.

Enjoy!

Your collection of photos reflects your life and values. The work you put into organizing the photos reflects your desire to share these for posterity. Ruth sees great value in the organization process: “I just encourage people, if they do have pictures, to find time to put them in order and identify them for other people who come after. Even if it’s little spurts of time.”

A black and white image of a woman sitting on the phone in the 1950s.

Ruth Bratz before she was Ruth Noah. 1950s. Image courtesy of Ruth Noah.

I asked my Grandma Ruth what she hoped her organized photo collection would communicate to people who see it. She said, “I think the pictures I’m keeping will show the importance of family and friends and that we have been blessed and had a wonderful life. You’re gonna get teary-eyed, aren’t you?”

I did in fact get teary-eyed.

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About Caryn Aasness

Caryn spends their time making things and making things happen. Their favorite part of every job and every adventure they’ve had have been looking through peoples’ possessions and asking questions.