For her 30th birthday, while she was still pregnant, Lindsay Nie received from Mom an album filled with her baby and childhood photos.
She enjoyed the trip down memory lane — recalling, for instance, the wooden slide she had in her room and the way she used to play on it. But she also noticed many gaps in the collection, in some cases months or even a year in length.
So after Nie gave birth to Amber last December, she was determined to leave a better record, a daily diary through imagery. She slips her Canon PowerShot SD450 digital camera into a diaper bag anywhere she goes and has snapped more than 6,500 photos in nine months.
“I grab it all the time, if she’s just doing something really cute, maybe playing with a toy or grabbing a shoe in a shoe store,” Nie said. “I don’t really delete any. Years from now, I want to remember the bad face she made” — not just the smiles.
Thanks to cheap and easy-to-use recording devices — digital cameras, camcorders, camera phones — today’s kids are forming the most documented generation ever, as parents, relatives and friends capture forever the first, second and hundredth smile.
The challenge will come in managing all the data and making sure they get migrated and cared for along the way.
“There’s going to be little escaping the embarrassment that comes with having that many baby photos and videos,” said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “On the other hand, what a great thing for this generation to have.”
The research company InfoTrends estimates that 67 percent of U.S. households had digital cameras last year, up from 42 percent in 2004.
Today’s children will get a glimpse tomorrow of what everyday life was like — how their parents dressed, what furniture and paintings were in their homes — not just during birthdays and special occasions when past generations were more apt to pull out their film cameras and pose in their best outfits.
“With digital you can just keep on taking to get the one you want,” said Amy Short, a nurse in East Alton, Ill. “I definitely take a lot more of my son of just everyday, laying around or sleeping or just little things.”
Virginia Merritt of Newnan, Ga., laments that she has few records from her life past 8 months, including when she started walking.
“I just have what my mom remembers,” she said.
So for Evan, who turns 1 on Sept. 25, Merritt made sure to keep a list of firsts on the Web site TotSites, including first use of a sippy cup (Aug. 8), first fever (April 8) and first passing of a toy from one hand to the other (Feb. 12) — categories generally not found in traditional, printed baby books.
She also posted sonograms from her pregnancy at Baby Crowd, a Web site for expecting parents.
But all this documentation may carry a price if parents, in spending so much energy creating and preserving a digital archive, fail to enjoy living the moment.
And will future generations even have time to look through stacks of CDs containing tens or hundreds of thousands of photos, and even if they do will individual memories become less precious because there are so many?
What if disk drives fail or software formats change, rendering photos unreadable by tomorrow’s computers? Will CDs even work? Think of those reels of 8 mm home movies with no projectors for viewing them.
“If you look at your parents’ or grandparents’ belongings, you can find old negatives, ... and negatives are still reproducible,” said Greg Miele, a Bethesda, Md., father of two, ages 9 and 17. “Yet if you have a hard drive fail on your computer, it’s all over. It’s a huge risk to maintain your photographs in a digital medium.”
After two years of shooting digital, Heidi Grunwald has started returning to film, overwhelmed by the prospect of cataloging all the photos too easily snapped.
“It’s taking a lot of enjoyment out of photography,” said the mother of a 9-year-old. “I find myself not even using the camera, thinking that if I take photographs of this school event, I’m now going to have to spend a whole week processing them. Why do you need all those pictures? Who’s going to look at them all at the end of the day?”
Many parents acknowledge their kids may never want all the photos, but they say they’d like to have them available just in case they want them — particularly as they become parents themselves.
“Now that I have children of my own, I would love to see baby pictures of me to see if my daughter looks like I did, what characteristics I share,” said Thea Jankowski of Saint Charles, Ill.
Until that day comes, many of the photos are being distributed to family and friends via e-mail and photo-sharing Web sites — in some cases exposing their child’s most private moments to the entire world.
Some parents buy additional disk drives to archive photos, burn them on CDs or keep copies online — not always mindful that photo sites often make it difficult to retrieve the original, high-resolution versions necessary for quality prints.
Brian Gilbreth of Louisa, Va., simply buys new memory cards for his camera. He has four already, each holding 2,000 shots of newborn Ava, including “every outfit she’s in, every facial expression, every hairdo she comes out with.”
Nie, who lives in New York, has been taking monthly shots of her child in the same armchair, each with a birthday cake. It’s today’s equivalent of the formal portraits past generations took at J.C. Penney or Sears.
Alexa Schmid, mother of twins in Plymouth, N.H., snaps shots of her daughters “recognizing each other, playing with each other.”
She stores the images on the computer with separate subfolders for each month, and she renames some files — as in “Isabella Playing” with the date — in hopes of remembering the context years from now.
Jennifer Lucas, of Frankfort, Ill., makes prints of the best photos and keeps them in a traditional album. She keeps the rest by month on CDs.
“Looking back at what my parents have of me, there might be 20 to 30 pictures from my entire first year,” Lucas said. With Jack, born four months ago, “we already have hundreds documenting everything he’s already done. Chances are those discs are never going to be looked at again when he gets older, but they will be there in case.”