How many photos do we really need?

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
October 3rd, 2021

I’m getting to know the folks at Apple pretty well, from the greeters with their iPads at the front of their mall store, the geniuses at the big table up front, to the good people on the telephone support line to which I have been given the triple-secret direct number.

Actually, it’s not a secret at all, but seems it should be, considering how quickly it brings you to a live person who can help you resolve your problem. It’s been quite a week, and I’m glad to report that I have been able to retrieve 11 years of photos from a failing external hard drive that I bought years ago to back up my last laptop.

And this wasn’t the only happy outcome. The experience has also given me the opportunity to wrestle once again with the age-old question of how much is enough.

Once we start talking about sufficiency, we need to come down from our abstractions to concrete examples, and for this purpose, it would be hard to find a better example than photographs. Our photos are the records of our lives, preserving those important occasions of achievement, celebration, the love of family and friends, travel, adventure, and the creative impulse that drives us to the ocean’s edge at sunrise or tilts our gaze and our camera skyward to the depths of the Milky Way on the darkest of nights.

The pictures we take awaken our memories and give us comfort in knowing that, even when memory fails, we can revisit the good times simply by looking at a photograph.

The age of digital photography has made it easier than ever before to take as many pictures as we want of anything that captures our interest. If you are old enough to remember when everyone took pictures with cameras and telephones were appliances with long springy cords, then you know how far we’ve come.

You will also remember how careful you had to be to choose your shots wisely. Film was expensive and came in rolls of 12 or 36 shots. When you filled a roll, you brought it to the photo shop (an actual place, not an app) to be developed and picked up a week or so later. The clerk gave you the receipt and you knew at a glance how many of your pictures succeeded, at least to the point of being recognizable images. You paid for each image even if it was out of focus, but there was no charge for pictures so over- or under-exposed that all you got was a completely transparent or opaque strip of film. Economically speaking, if you were going to fail, it was better to fail in spectacular fashion.

With the emergence of digital photography with increasingly sophisticated cameras built into pocket-sized computer/phone combos, we can now take as many pictures as we want with no concern about the cost of developing film and little worry about getting the shot right the first time.

“It’s only pixels,” my photographer friend is fond of reminding me as he snaps off dozens of shots whenever the spirit moves him. When we rule out cost as a factor, we are limited only by our imagination and finding a place to store what could easily build to thousands of digital images in a very short period of time. Technology provides the solution in the form of camera phones with ever growing storage capacities, external hard drives to expand the limits of our computers, and that mysterious construction called the cloud where we can rent celestial rooms of our own to store our photos, documents and anything else that can be digitized.

One would think that with all of this room to store the evidence of our existence, we could sustain the illusion of living forever, existing in an eternal now where the click of a mouse can bring us back to any moment we want to revisit. Experience shows that it isn’t so easy, and a glimpse of the past is just as likely to provoke sadness at the passage of time as it is to bring us back to happier days. Nostalgia is overrated.

Click as much as we want, but time passes, memories dim, hard drives fail, and eventually we’re no longer able to afford the rent on that sweet little place in the cloud to which we’ve added a massive extension.

This week, with the help of the good folks at Apple, I was able to recover 11 years of photos from a failing storage drive. I am happy to have them back, and when I see pictures of my adult children at earlier passages in their lives and of my wife and me on our travels or enjoying time with our friends, I am there again, if not with the same joy and apprehension, then at least as a grateful visitor.

This week, I have learned how to rescue photos that I thought were lost, but I am also learning to choose carefully which ones I want and need to keep. I don’t need 100 pictures of the Great Plains from the train window on our way to Seattle, but I want the sunset, the white chapel at the crossroads, the wild mustangs of North Dakota, and the images of us enjoying the show.

In the days of film photography, we had to choose which pictures we wanted to take. Now, it’s a question of which ones we want to keep. Either way, when it comes to deciding how many photos or how much of anything we really need, it’s always a matter of choosing and keeping safe that which matters most.

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