A Life Worth Archiving

Self Portrait

At Friday’s end, a well-traveled lady finds herself in search of a slide viewer. She has seen the world, she tells me, having visited my birth city of St. Petersburg forty years ago. “We tried for tickets to The Kirov. At the time we didn’t piece together that our tour guides wanted bribes,” she told me. “Brezhnev is in power.” Her remembering unfolds over our counter, and I’m imagining along with her, that she is coming from Finland in an empty train car, salted with Finish salesmen heading to Leningrad to sell cucumbers. Then, the shutter of her memory clicks and returns, or rather, advances to the present day right off Hemlock St.

Shopping, she leans over the counter

“Oh, it says here that I shouldn’t lean on glass. It says so right here, please do not lean on glass.” She bends upright, back to what she’s here for. “Yes, I do need a slide viewer.” I find one hanging next to the Agfa-style loupes. “Does it light up?she asks. Indeed, with the help of two AA batteries and the slide frame pressed down. We open the box and follow instructions, the slide viewer lights up, as do her eyes.

“I’ll take it.”

And as for the pictures? 

“I am preserving them for my grandchildren,” she says, “I have to see what to throw out and what to keep.”

“I won’t be around forever.”

Kitsilano Shadow
Nikon F2, Cinestill 400D, 20mm.

We use photographs to tell a story, often our story, or at least, our interpretation of being. Since the first snapshot, families have held onto albums for generations: from daguerreotype lockets of newlyweds to post-war honeymoons in photo booths to Polaroid snapshots of birthdays over summer lemonade. Usually, one person takes on the role of documentarian of loved ones. In my family, my mom would take pictures of my brother and me growing up, and I am indebted to her to be able to go back in time whenever I so choose. If there is an argument that photographs replace our memories, then I am fortunate to have our replacements stored in albums, organized by year. I seem to have picked up where she had left off, continuing to take pictures of my brother, and dear people I meet along the way.

We are what (or who) we photograph. And I tend to take pictures of the people in my life. Recently, the following throughline came to tailgate my thoughts on creativity. That I have been photographing the spaces I have inhabited for years. Why, I wonder? Perhaps my current apartment is an old friend of sorts. It is always there. Perhaps what is important is the act of documentation, and later, the act of preserving one’s documents.

A Humble Home
Nikon F2, Kodak E100, 20mm.

Vancouver. “How did I get here?” is the question I quote most mornings from the band, Talking Heads. And I’m glad I have taken the pictures that provide an answer on film. I, inadvertently, had begun to document my immigration to Canada: the furnishing of my first apartment, the shuffle of chairs between rooms, the dressing of windows with blinds, the roll, re-roll, and return of carpet, the departure of dressers, the slow demise of an electric kettle from Costco, the passing of seasons. Often, I would have one or two frames left to finish off a roll of film, and my second-floor apartment of four years would learn to pose for pictures.

I painted doors and took them off their hinges. I would not do that again.

Photo Of My Door
Nikon F2, Kodak E100, 20mm.

Again, I have the pictures.

This year I began to look back at the steps I had taken before I stopped in the city of rain. I had hosted parties, movie nights, and birthdays, many saved on an Instax or disposable Ilfocolor, all with the subconscious intent to record as much of what took place as possible. I moved here, lived here. I loved here. Eureka moment here. I document my life as a way to celebrate its importance. And it is important because it is mine. And I photograph knowing my life is as fleeting as it is worth remembering. And I want it to be known that I was here.

My cataloguing methods have changed over the years. At first, I would separate files into folders such as 35MM, FujiX100, Canon 5D Mark III. Later, by year, or country, and occasionally, important events – graduation, Russia 2003, etc. Today, I use the Nikon Cool Scan 5000 / Vue Scan to scan my negatives, and I organize them into folders by film stock – i.e. Nikon F2, Portra400, Portra400R1, and name the files Portra400R1_001 and so on. I scan files to both .tiff and .jpeg. The latter allows me to scroll through the photos faster before I select the .tiff I want to edit, publish online, or print. I wish I had not scanned all my files at 4000DPI, clogging up my drive. Each one takes forever to load in Preview, and I wish to flip through them like an old family album.

What if I want to look back at the view from my family’s apartment in New York, from fifteen years ago, all in an instant?

Bennett Avenue
Nikon FM2, Kodak Tri-X, 50mm.

Are my archiving methods the best? Hardly. It is the thought to keep track that counts. And I’m trying (oh, the difficulty of remembering what film stock I shot what life event with), as I thread my negatives into Print File Preservers and store them in my Besseler Binder, both of which I had purchased at Beau long before my first day of work. Print File offers preservers for slides, prints, and many other negative formats. When I close shut my Besseler Binder with its locking tabs, I know the binder box will keep out light and dust until I open it once more for another round of filling.

Again, I am always looking to improve my method of operation. Perhaps I can develop a database in FileMaker, the same software we use to keep track of consignments here at Beau Photo, for all of the scans on my hard drive and negatives in my binder? Perhaps I will re-categorize, re-organize, and re-energize …

After all, I am Spring cleaning out my apartment, so why not my hard drives.

Nikon F2, Ilford HP5, 50mm.

After I told my good friend Jimmy here in Vancouver of my robust methodology, he too lamented his treasure trove of slides, all stored in boxes, stored in crates, underneath piles of vacation wear from Florida, unorganized, unkempt, and long forgotten. Again, I was hearing of an analogous difficulty to find memories from decades ago, and this is why I choose to archive as I go right now. “I’ve found one of Rod Stewart,” he tells me over the phone, “just look at those hot pink leather pants … and here is Bowie, on a boat in a fedora, passing through Vancouver. I forgot I had taken these.” And when I come over and pass through the narrow hallway lined with his life’s memorabilia, he furrows his brows and smiles: “It’s all your fault, Boris. You made me go back and dig up my archives. I haven’t looked at them for years.”

“Now I have to sort through them all and figure out what to keep.”

I have a hard time letting go. I haven’t thrown out a single picture. Perhaps as the lady, and as my good friend, Jimmy, I will need to learn to sort through the rubbish. And in the clearing, there will be archiving. All as I carve out my story, told through the kept, shining gems of my pictures.

Boris Riabov

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Beau Photo Supplies Inc.
Beau Photo Supplies Inc.