Tidying up an ugly pile of negatives

If you’ve Marie Kondo-ed your upstairs storage closet, you might decide your negatives aren’t “sparking joy” and it’s time to dump them.

Not so fast.

It seems like everyone is crazy for Kondo-mania. Marie Kondo is the guru of the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and now Netflix reality show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Her process of sorting through your stuff to lighten your load in life is so widespread it has turned into a verb: Kondo-ing.

The last step in her method of decluttering is to tackle sentimental items, which would include photos and, presumably, negatives.

Back when people used film to takes pictures, prints came back from the processor with negatives. When you run across them in your photo collection, they probably won’t spark any joy; they’re difficult to view without a negative viewer, the images are small, and the negatives themselves are hard to handle—thin, awkwardly curved, slippery. You might be tempted to throw them straightaway.

But wait. These negatives are a backup to your printed photos and can be saved in case of damage to the original prints.

The most important thing to do with negatives: Store them separate from your prints. If something tragic were to happen to those prints (think: house fire or water pipe break), the negatives could be used to recreate the print if they are stored somewhere else.

Consider your negatives an insurance policy on your photos; insurance doesn’t usually spark joy either, but it’s nice to have in case of an emergency.

If you’re sorting through a mountain of family photos and come across a bunch of negatives, set them aside. The plastic sleeves in which some negatives come from the processor are likely photo-safe plastic (i.e., polyethylene) so it’s fine to keep them in those sleeves or — if the negatives are loose — the original photo envelope. Negatives don’t have to be sorted and edited as meticulously as a print collection unless or until it becomes necessary, as in the case of one of the aforementioned tragedies.

negs blogStore your negatives in the same way you would store your prints. Use photo-safe materials, and keep them in a cool, dry place (i.e., not the basement or attic) or better yet, the house of a good friend or relative.

If you handle your negatives in this manner, you’ll spark the joy of knowing you’ve mitigated risk without having to invest a lot of time going through every last negative strip and you’ll have tidied up your photo collection. Sweet.


Firsts top the list of keepers

When prioritizing photos to keep in your collection, firsts come first.

First birthday? First day of school? First job? There are a lot of photos you might be able to part with, but these? If you’ve got photos of them, keep them, scrapbook them, frame them, enjoy them.

A meme floating through the internet reinforces this concept

“Keep a picture of your first fish, first car and first boyfriend.”

~ Author unknown

Thumbs up to Facebook’s Look Back videos for being succinct

Say what you will about Facebook’s Look Back videos (and people are saying everything from I Love The Facebook Look Back Videos to  No One Wants To See Your Facebook Look Back Video), they are a great lesson in prioritizing.

Most of us are drowning in our own images — printed, duplicates, digital, back-ups — and we finally sit down to organize them, we hardly know where to start. If we do get started, we struggle with editing and end up with an overwhelming number of framed photos, scrapbooks, albums, stories and more. It’s the dreaded 1960s vacation slide show times 100 (“is it over yet?”).

What Facebook has done with its Look Back videos created in honor of the company’s 10-year anniversary is compress our lives into 1 minute. Depending on how you use Facebook, what you’ve posted and what kind of friends you have, the video can be a meaningful snippet of the past 10 years or a mess of funny images you should never have uploaded in the first place. But no matter what: It’s 10 years in 62 seconds. Not an image more or a second less.

There is a lot of  power in telling your life story in 17 photos (more or less). It forces you to consider what’s really important and meaningful. That picture of your first-born smeared with birthday cake on his first birthday isn’t so cute anymore, huh? Pictures of your living room remodel feel like wasted film (or pixels) now, don’t they?

And sharing your story? Rare is the person who turns down a 1-minute video (I know, I know, your News Feed is plastered with videos right now, but if your friend specifically asked you to look at Look Back video, you could spare a minute, couldn’t you?). It moves fast enough that even if it’s not so special, you know it’ll be over soon. And if it’s a particularly good collection of photos, you might even watch it twice.

If you haven’t tackled your pile of photos (and even if you have), think about making one book or story or video about your whole life with just 17 images. That’s a doable project and if you prioritize appropriately, you would have a powerful piece to share with people about your life. About you.

And that deserves a thumbs up.

Small steps to telling your story

Is it possible the thought of “writing your memoirs” gives you pause because when the story ends, so do you?

Among personal historians, I often hear stories of clients who delay finishing the project to write a life story because they believed “once the book came out, that meant the life was truly over, which was why we didn’t get the book done when the narrator was alive.”

It’s called a “superstitious delay,” this desire to avoid sending a signal to oneself or the subject of the story that it’s OK to die or that they’re “finished” and expected to die.

The belief one can control pretty much anything is preposterous, of course, but a human being is imbued with this folly that the world revolves around him. As quoted from the world’s greatest piece of literature by many preachers before the Mayan apocalypse last month, “No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven.”

As a memoir writer myself, I am amused by this unfounded fear. I finished my book, and I’m still around. I intend to write a lot more books. While my intentions may not be fulfilled, I can only control my actions today.

If you’re thinking about organizing your photos or writing your life story, here are a few things you can do today to get you there:

  • Get all your printed photos in one place and start sorting. If it’s an overwhelming pile, sort for 30 minutes or an hour. Then do it again tomorrow.
  • Write one little story, be it a memory of your mom or the history behind why you love the Cubs (or whatever you love) so much. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even finished. But it’s a start.
  • Assemble in one place all the pictures and mementos of one important event (a birth, a wedding, a sports career, a hobby). Shop for a box or container that can be labeled so you can keep all these things together. Add a note about why they are important to you before storing it.
  • Set up an appointment with a photo organizer or personal historian. It doesn’t cost anything to ask questions.