“The Project Gutenberg eBook of War Photographs Taken on the Battlefields during the Civil War of the United States, by By Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner.” Accessed October 6, 2016. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/43922/43922-h/43922-h.htm.
At the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, a small object is getting a lot of attention. An album of Civil War photos portraying 17 men of Company G, 14th Regiment, United States Colored Troops was a gift from the descendants of Captain William A. Prickitt, the white officer commanding those black troops, and the person most likely responsible for writing the names of the men in the album. These names make the album quite rare, since few of the 200,000 African American soldiers who served in the Union Army have been identified in photographs.The Book mentioned in the article was featured in a National Public Radio broadcast on September 21, 2016 entitled, "Family Heirloom, National Treasure: Rare Photos Show Black Civil War Soldiers."
These articles should point out that the significance of finding a collection or even one old photograph cannot be underestimated. Unfortunately, from my own experience, few people see the need to preserve old photos, especially if they cannot immediately identify the individuals depicted. We need to realize that the day of film photography has effectively ended. We have decisively moved to digital images and the entire body of paper-based photos and early formats is now almost completely a finite historical resource. Those of us with hundreds or perhaps thousands of old photos may fail to understand that over time, it will become harder and harder to find copies of our ancestor's photographs merely because those photos are lost and cannot be replaced.
What do we do with the old photographs? One immediate answer is to digitize them and make them available online. FamilySearch.org has undertaked its Memories project to provide a place to archive old photos. The promise is that these images will be preserved as long as is possible into the future. But what about the original photos on paper or other media?
Because of the huge number of photos and images available today, it might appear that there is nothing to worry about. But since the supply is now very finite, it is entirely possible that people born after the advent of digital media might have never seen an actual, physical copy of an old photograph. For example, how many of us have held and looked at a tintype or a daguerreotype? It should be noted that there were possibly millions of these types of images created but now they are extremely rare except in private collections, archives and museums.
It is extremely hard for any of us today to predict the impact a photograph of our life may have on future generations. We may think something like "who would ever want an old photo of me on a bicycle?" But as technology changes, depictions of our ancestors in daily activities will very likely become just as interesting as photos from the 1800s are to us today.
Of course I am not advocating that every out-of-focus, indistinguishable and underexposed or overexposed photo be preserved as an heirloom, but I am pointing out that the old photo you have of your grandfather or grandmother may be the only such image in existence. At the very least, preserve a high quality digital copy of the photo and share it with family members if you are disposed to throw away the originals.