Photography and Genealogy

W R Allen Portrait World War two UniformIn 2016 my father tasked me with scanning and archiving the photo, slide, photographic negatives and ephemera belonging to my late grandfather, Walter Raymond Allen.

My father had longed to have all these materials available in an accessible and permanent digital format. He believed many of these photos provided links and connections to our family’s history.

Like my grandfather, I was also an amateur photographer and so began a process that took much longer than I expected. Everything arrived in several boxes. Slides were stored out of order. Negatives got tossed in envelopes where they stayed for years. (My grandfather died in 1980.) Photo formats included 1×1, 2×2, 2×3, 4×6 and 8×10. I used both an Epson Perfection V600 flatbed scanner and a slide scanner to digitize and store over 3,000 photos, negatives, slides and ephemera.

The project overwhelmed me at first. Where to start? How to start? The nice thing about this project is that I could have started anywhere, headed in any direction and would have made progress. Rather than worry about how everything could turn out, I just got started and made changes as I needed to.

Nearly two years later I digitized the last slide.

The photos have come to live inside me, not simply as curious artifacts or even memories of my family but as a kind of portal to the long arc of history. Each image viewed collectively invokes the passage of time and a striking truth that individuals living their lives create human history.

Screenshot 2018-08-27 14.54.34

My grandfather was living as a student at the University of Colorado when he was drafted on October 16, 1940. In March 1941 he was enlisted to the 3rd Army Air Division. He was honorably discharged in December 1946. Like hundreds of thousands of other young men and women he participated in the making of world history, fighting to end fascism.

A color scan of the draft card for W R Allen

I study history in the mid-1980s  as a Masters student at the University of Southern California. My expertise was popular culture and social history. The pieces of paper that document my grandfather’s life interest me enormously. His draft registration card, department store receipts, documents for professional organizations contribute to fleshing out the life of one individual.

They give life to the facts of a person’s life. Where did he shop? What were his professional goals? Where did he like to travel? They reveal individual details of a person’s life genealogy websites can’t capture.

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