Magical Old Photos and the Stories Behind Them

Old photographs are essentially personal time machines for our memories. Prints and slides step in to fill in gaps in our memories of past life moments – childhood days, special trips, celebrations, and more. As we get further away from these moments, the details become fuzzy. Photographs help us hit the ‘refresh’ button and make some of those memories a little more vivid.

There’s something about old photos – even those of strangers

As much as we treasure and enjoy going through our own old photos, we are also drawn to ones that feature people we don’t know. Anyone who has ever discovered a box of unidentified black and whites at a flea market can attest to their emotional pull and power.

To understand how this old photo mystique works, just scroll through the untagged photos below. These photos date from the 1940s and 50s and have a special quality due to their vintage and subjects.

A golden memory from 1940s

The young subject in this warmly golden photo looks at us with the kind of half amused and half unsure smile that only someone her age can manage for the camera.

A photogenic smiling picture from 1940s

A photogenic subject, a clear and smiling gaze, and a rosy tint that plays up the reds in the picture.

Timeless childrens outfit photo

Period children’s outfits but a timeless way to spend an afternoon

Picture depicting sense of fun among friends group

There’s a sense of fun in this picture  – starting from the facial expression of its main subject, to the friends flanking him and the photobomber behind him.

As we look at these photos, a number of questions race through our minds. Who were these people? What were the young woman’s dreams and aspirations? How did the lives of the children turn out? Where were the friends headed? In the absence of any information, we can only look at the photographs and wonder. We yearn for stories – or even just a few details – to help fill in the gaps and complete the experience.

Starting a memory preservation project

Uncovering or documenting the stories embedded in our photographic collection is a worthwhile project for every one of us. Any personal story mining project has to start with saving and preserving photos. Digitizing old photos by scanning prints and slides and converting them to a digital format is a great starting point. With some time, planning and organization (and possibly a little help from a trusty photo scanning service), you will soon be able to build a consolidated archive of all your analog photos.

The work and effort we put into this kind of photo preservation and organization can really pay off. Not only does it keep these memories safe from physical harm, it also makes them more easily shareable and accessible. You can share a special memory with with a relative, close friend or child and brighten their day. You can more easily put together and collect stories involving these memories. Your friends and family can add photos to their own collections to augment them. It’s a win-win, whichever way you look at it.

Our old photos matter, as do the stories behind them. The former needs to be preserved; the latter needs to be brought out and aired.

As Rachel LaCour Niesen, the founder of Save Family Photos (a curated site to help people share photos and stories) noted in a ScanCafe interview a couple of years ago:

No matter where you come from, there’s a cross-cultural commitment to family. We all have family stories; we all have history. Those stories deserve to be preserved. That’s why gathering around a virtual campfire, whether it’s online or in-person, is so important: when someone else shares their story, it encourages us to tell our own. We can all celebrate each other’s family history, while still respecting our individual legacies.