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Choosing which photos will tell the story of a life

A page from Elaine Greenberg's 1947 high school scrapbook.
A page from Elaine Greenberg's 1947 high school scrapbook.Beth Jones

My mother is 86 years old. My father is 89. They’ve traveled across much of the world — together, separately, with friends and family. A river trip up the Irrawaddy before Burma became Myanmar; Madagascar; New Zealand; five days living in a parking lot in Guatemala City after a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck in 1979.

Unlike Prufrock’s coffee spoons, my parents’ lives can be measured in their steps around the globe, the people they’ve met, the places they’ve seen, the family and friends they love and have celebrated with. Their journey through life is also evidenced by the heft of their many, many, photo albums, slide carousels, boxes of 3 x 5 and 4 x 6 prints, plastic flip boxes, and briefcase-sized photo cases labeled by year, holiday, or location.

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My parents have been quarantining in New York’s Hudson Valley at a family home that’s usually run as an Airbnb. The majority of their personal items have been removed, but my mother’s 30-plus photo albums starting in 1934, as well as a multitude of other pictures, and my grandmother’s albums and heavy prints of unidentified relatives from 19th- and early 20th-century Eastern Europe, still reside on three long shelves in the den.

For 70 years my parents have appeared together in photographs, starting with the summer they met at Sun Ray House in the Catskills. My mother was a nanny and my father was a waiter. There’s a photo of them at the swimming pool, my 19-year-old father standing behind my 16-year-old mother, his hands on her shoulders, her legs in the water. There are earlier albums of my mother’s, including a scrapbook of a family trip to pre-Castro Cuba in 1949, black and white photos of my mother, her sister and my grandmother, swimming and sunning with relatives at La Concha beach, “Cuba’s smart bathing beach,” according to a sticker she put on the black paper page when she was 15.

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This year, with unexpected time on her hands and a sense of precariousness about the future, my mother began to navigate her own history, revisiting thousands of moments and days across more than half a century of photos.

Elaine and Arthur Greenberg with their wedding photos and a photo from the 1990s.
Elaine and Arthur Greenberg with their wedding photos and a photo from the 1990s.Gareth Jones

“I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time,” she told me, as we sat in front of a table covered in plastic photo file boxes from the ’80s and ’90s. “I kept putting it off because I either didn’t have the time or because I knew it was going to be both enjoyable and sad, going back over so many memories and so many people who’ve since died or I’ve lost touch with. It’s been eye-opening how many places I’ve traveled to, how many people I’ve become friends with and how many I’ve known.”

We were never a family who took Super 8 films or video. Instead, our lives — separate and together — are documented in thousands of still images across decades of Kodachrome slides, prints held in albums with paper corners or sticky plastic sheets, and the few digital pictures that made it off phones. My grandfather is there, grilling his signature spare ribs 50 years ago on the Fourth of July. Decades of Thanksgiving dinners. My ex-husband is smiling in one year’s album and missing the next. My grandmother’s 1964 Ford Mustang. Three generations of babies.

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There’s art and skill to cataloging, archiving a life, preserving personal history. And photo albums feel like the place where permanent images inevitably collide with the illusions of memory and sentimentality. For generations, most of us have stuffed undated and disorganized photos into books or envelopes. Now we leave them on our phones forever. My mother decided to pick and choose which visual memories will tell her story. Ever the pragmatist, she recognizes urgency as well as sentiment: “I don’t know how long I’m going to be around and competent to do this,” she told me. “So I’m doing it now.”

Karen Marshall, chair of the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism Program at the International Center of Photography in New York City, is familiar with what it means to preserve a life through photos. She’s also familiar with my mother’s life; our families have known each other for 60 years, and her family makes many appearances in my mother’s albums. I asked her about the role photography plays in our personal lives versus the historical or social context that our pictures might offer to others.

“Photography is a language like words are a language, and the story you tell depends on how you edit,” she explained. “Say someone writes a memoir that we all love, because it’s personal. But it was written in Berlin in 1938, so it’s also seen through the eyes and memory of someone. There’s always an historical piece of it, too. Photography is all in the edit.”

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My mother’s albums of Batista’s Cuba have a clear historical context, including the Cuban postage stamps glued to their pages. Even without much conscious editing, my father’s casual family snapshots of my brother with long curly blond hair and puka beads in 1979, me in hip-huggers, Manhattan when it was still gritty, and Cancun with dirt roads, seem to hold an unexpected amount of cultural history.

A few of Elaine Greenberg's photo albums.
A few of Elaine Greenberg's photo albums.Beth Jones

A selection of boxes and albums sat on the table in front of my mother, and she looked at each one, determining its edit and fate. Pictures of my grandmother at home in California and my aunt who died when she was 38. “There are photos that give me different kinds of feelings. Some make me wish I could spend a little more time back with those people from my vantage point now, that I could have dealt with time differently. You look back at the past and have questions.”

Photographs force us into the past, and while most showcase the bright times, they also highlight, profoundly, what has vanished, including expectations. “There are friends that maybe I should have made more of an effort to keep in touch with,” she told me. “And there were many, many, many photos that made me teary. Mothers Days of the past, Thanksgivings. Looking at all of you, your generation, when you were in your late teens and early 20s and everyone had such big wonderful dreams of the future. And everyone had so many sad experiences along the way.”

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We did all have broken dreams, but my edit is different than hers. My brother’s divorce as well as mine, friends who died young, unexpected disappointments and losses. These may have dimmed some of our hopes, and broken our hearts, but also released us to find other chances and dreams. Unfortunately, the photographic evidence of the dreams we achieved during the early 2000s was lost when my father’s hard drive crashed.

Marshall commented on how we bookmark our lives with photos. “The way your mother organizes her albums is telling us how she wants us to remember things. But she also has the backstory that we don’t have.”

My father’s approach — and sense of responsibility to the editorial process — is entirely different. “I sit down and pick out a box, and I almost close my eyes and point.”

There’s a new photograph of my parents. My mother is holding their wedding album open to a double page of pictures. My father is holding a photo of them in Mexico in the 1990s. The new picture was taken by my 15-year-old son. This photo stretches back to nearly the beginning of my mother’s albums, and traverses their history, and the story of everyone else in their photos, to reach into today. There’s a tenderness in looking at someone’s lifetime of photographs, an animation to the flat paper, a purpose beyond a pose. Every image was intended as a link from the moment it was taken, into the future.

My son is likely to be the archivist of these albums one day, along with whatever photos I leave behind, and all of his own in whatever format will be used when he’s an adult. He’ll have to decide how to edit, and what stories to tell.

Beth Jones can be reached at beth.jones7@gmail.com.

A photo of the writer and her mother in England in 1991.
A photo of the writer and her mother in England in 1991.Beth Jones