Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Family history traced in 6,000 photographs

Photograph by: Greg Southam, The Journal, Edmonton Journal

If the going rate on a picture still amounts to a thousand words, Mark McIlveen's collection of family images would produce a six-million-word tome that would make War and Peace look like a pocket novel. When he finally completed the arduous task of digitizing 6,000 photographs from six generations and stood back to examine the results, it was a head-shaking moment.

"It was certainly a strange visual," says McIlveen, "to have had all these boxes of albums and then spend more than a hundred hours digitizing them to wind up with a tiny little shoebox thingy of about 40 discs."
Most mere mortals are overwhelmed by the prospect of sorting through even a single drawer full of unorganized photographs. Many others have photos that exist only in cyberspace, on social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. McIlveen, though, decided to tackle the herculean task of digitizing 130 years' worth of hard-copy family photographs, some from as far back as 1880.
He says it was worth the effort. "From that shoebox," says McIlveen, "many great new projects will be launched."

What those projects will be is no longer his problem. That will be up to his three daughters, Linda, Laura and Erin, to whom McIlveen has passed the torch -- or, in this case, shoebox. The plan, he says, was always to hand the vast collection over to them when they all graduated from university, which came to pass last month when his youngest, Erin, 24, graduated from the University of Las Vegas in Nevada.

"Now it's the next generation's turn to do whatever they want with it," says McIlveen.

The family photo history happened almost by accident, when McIlveen offered to help his grandparents sort through a moving box full of old photographs and get them into some semblance of order, about 30 years ago. He eventually did the same thing with his parents before they died.

"It just kind of grew into a project over the years of organizing family photographs into albums," he says. "It started out as a small project, of going through one or two big boxes of unorganized pictures, which is probably something every family has. There was never an intention of creating a whole system."

Laura, who's now 28, says her Dad was always on the lookout for Kodak moments when they were growing up, especially during their annual summer vacations. He was also extremely organized and made sure the precious memories he documented with his camera were put into photograph albums almost immediately, rather than being tossed into a dresser drawer to be forgotten.

Everything changed with the advent of digital technology, and before long McIlveen looked at his stacks of neatly ordered albums and saw an opportunity to build a digital history of his family. "Through the years we had accumulated more than 10,000 pictures," he says, "but we took the best 6,000 and digitized them to make a family history."

The hard part was standing in front of the scanner at the local Walmart, where each image had to be scanned individually.

"The staff there knew my name," says Stephanie Melo, a family friend who helped him with the project. McIlveen figures the process took about 120 hours in total.

The irony, of course, is that his daughters plan to turn at least some of the images on the CDs into pictures again, likely in the form of customized books. And that's OK with him. "Whatever they want to do is fine with me," says McIlveen with a laugh. "My job is done."

Read more:

Photos Reunited - UK's leading Digital Photo Scanning Service

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