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A few months ago I sat between my mother and father on their couch in the basement of their home in Minot, North Dakota, my home town. My mom is almost 90. Dad will be 92 in a week. They wanted me to look at things I might like to keep from their lives, our lives together, after they pass away.

At this point, I have most things that I need, including multiple sets of dishes, furniture, cookware and books. There is one thing, however, that I want to hold on to, and that’s a sense of my family’s history. On our laps lay a photo album of my parents’ wedding. As we paged through it together, the bittersweet feeling of the circle of life brought tears to my eyes. We admired my slender father, my mother in her satin gown made by my grandmother, the perfect youth of two dear people who are now almost 69 years into that marriage.

From there we delved into the family albums. In the photos of me, it’s almost a history of hair: hippie years with long blond hair, then the frizzy stage, when I got married, then my pixie red stage. There, in the photos, was a life lived with my parents, grandparents, cousins, sisters, gathering together for holidays and birthdays. As we turned the pages, things long forgotten rose to the surface. Without these photographs, many of these memories would have faded into oblivion. I am grateful to my mother for her role as the family archivist.

Even though, as a photographer, I have archived tens of thousands of photographs, mostly of others, the photos in our family albums help me remember, as nothing else could, where I came from and who I am.

Documenting lives with photography has been on-going since the mid-1800s, when the medium was invented. In those early days, families posed for the unblinking eye of large studio cameras, their heads held in place by metal frames, sitting motionless as the image burned slowly onto film. Ever wonder why those people looked so serious?

Later, with box cameras, 35mm cameras and faster film, people seemed to blossom into life. These days, with our phone cameras, we are capable of recording every moment of life as it happens. But–with the sheer volume of images and how to manage them, what will become of the history of our lives as technology changes. How will we pass our histories to the children, to help them know who they are?

Over the years I have had clients who get this. They create a photographic legacy of their lives to pass on to their kids. But even if professional photography is not your choice, please think about creating a family album of your most important photos so you can sit with your kids one day, as I did with my parents, and share a history of life together.

About the photo “Memory”: When I drive by the endless fields in North Dakota, I often wonder about what has passed before. This is my exploration of that: a current photo of a ripe barley field in North Dakota overlaid with a photograph that includes my paternal grandmother (left) and grandfather, taken in the 1940s..

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