Feeding the Sika Deer in Nara, Japan. 2012. (Captured by my sister, music writer, Alex Vickery.
I stared at this cursor for a good ten minutes before I actually let a line stick. I feel like the ending to an episode of Doogie Howser, M.D.
An enthusiastic, “Yes,” was my response to Brad’s request that I pen a guest post, without question, because Brad is awesome, but the fact is I spent a lot longer than ten minutes catching up on the past guest posts here that I had missed. I was blown away at the inspiring words and visuals and was suddenly at an impasse.
With 62 pages of posts from world-renowned artists, what was I going to bring to the table? After considerable thought I decided to try to answer a question that I’m casually asked all the time.
“What is your favorite photo?”
Now I’m sure most are implying an image that I personally took, in which case I have frames that I like at any given time. To get those out of the way here are a few of my own most recent images that I personally enjoy.
Back to the question at hand. My answer is the same every time. My favorite photograph is one I didn’t personally take, in fact I don’t really know who took it. It’s a medium format print of an image of my grandfather teaching a firearms class during his time in the Air Force stationed Tachikawa AFB near Tokyo, Japan. I always loved the texture of the image and the official stamp on the back. The photo, as old as it is, is sharper than 99% of digital captures today. It makes me want to use my Hasselblad more.
Both of my grandfathers died in the late 90’s and I loved both of them dearly, however the reason why the image is so important to me isn’t just because of who is in the photo, but more of what the image represents: family.
I remember being envious of grade school classmates that always seemed to have several cousins close by or a huge family gathering every weekend. My family was stretched from San Francisco to New York to Tokyo to Cleveland to Paris and everywhere in between. I moved with my family from Houston, TX to Paris, France in the middle of my 5th grade year. Then we moved back 3 years later. It was a tough adjustment, but I got through it. In the end I had been to a dozen different schools, as many or more different houses, different environments and different memories.
No matter where we were, I always loved that I could open up our photo albums and see the same photos of friends and family. Those photographs held it all together.
Ever since I started to really enjoy photography several years ago, I have been on a quest to preserve as much of my family’s negatives, prints and old video footage as possible. It started with the tedious task of converting our family’s old VHS tapes into digital files and progressed into scanning prints, negatives, and sometimes other interesting documents like postcards or report cards.
As photographers we take the greatest care organizing and archiving our own photography, so why not make that same effort to protect our family’s historical record? Regardless of how organized and secure our own pixels are, for most of us, there is an aging box of yellowing prints from a pre-digital era that aren’t part of that archiving workflow, but they should be.
My sister recently moved back to the states from Dublin. My mom lives in Singapore. Before that they were in Brazil. It’s tough not getting to see some of your family as much as you’d like. In 2012 I visited my grandmother in New York whom I rarely get the chance to see. She had a very old photo from 1914. It was a photo of her mother, my great grandmother as a young schoolgirl in 1914. She was about to throw it out. I had to save it.
I rescued the photograph and scanned in a ton of old photographs she had collected. It’s important to me, these photographic records of my family’s history. Sometimes, if not all the time, the process of scanning and organizing an overwhelming pile of prints is tiresome, but the look on your family’s face when they’ve re-discovered an old memory at the bottom of that pile that you unearthed and preserved can make it all worth it.
In 2010, for my grandmother’s 80th birthday, I compiled my favorite scanned images into a 400-page book that I self-published as a surprise for her. Check out my blog to read more about that project.
They all don’t have to be a book project, but if that unorganized pile exists for you and your family, scan them in. Burn them to a disc or drive. Make copies and give them to family members for safekeeping.
My favorite photographs are the ones of my sister as a baby in Paris, the ones of my dad holding me as a baby, my grandma making me fried rice, grandpa as a kid.
I am their historian. I am their archivist. I am the only one who knows how to work the scanner.
Todd Spoth is a commercial and editorial photographer based out of Houston, Texas, USA. When he isn’t making pictures, writing sentimental blog posts or speaking in the third person he writes and records his own music which can be heard here.