Home & Garden: Organizing the Attic Home & Garden
Week Eight: Organizing Photographs

As I slog through an 11-week project to free my attic from years of accumulated clutter, this last week was given over completely to sorting through photographs. I found myself besieged by the universal doubts of packrats everywhere: How can I discard these precious memories?

The boxes and baskets brimming with loose photos that came to rest in my attic are mostly from three sources: me; my husband, Bob; and my parents, both of whom died several years ago.

When I first waded into this mess, I encountered another problem. I didn't recognize half the people in the pictures. In shoebox after shoebox, I sifted through small photos of old ladies dating back at least to the 1950s. Who were these people, and why did I have pictures of them? Clearly, this was not going to be easy.

Further complicating the mission, my Uncle Charlie had triple bypass surgery and for a few days it was unclear if he was going to make it. (Happily, he's recovering nicely.) He was a big part of my childhood, so much so that I named my son after him. Each time I ran across a photo of him or one of his children or grandchildren, I dissolved in tears.

This sounds ridiculous, I know. But that's what makes organizing photographs so difficult. It's time-consuming and emotionally draining. Here is what I learned:

Tossing: There was not much I wanted to part with, though I did dump dozens of photos my parents took on vacation. Where did they go, you may ask? I have no idea. None of the photos was labeled in any way. Worse, there were no people in any of them, just one undated, unidentified pyramid or piazza after another. In the trash, all of them.

At the urging of Caitlin Shear, a professional organizer with A Sorted Affair in Fairfax, who is helping me clear out my attic, I also got rid of all the cheap-o frames I've bought or been given over the years. I saved a lot of storage space by taking out the photos and tossing the frames.

Sorting: I made myself sit in the attic sifting through photos for about six hours by myself, plus the two hours I spent with Caitlin. She suggested I divide the photos into broad categories defined by person, location or date. "As with any system," she said, "if you get too specific you won't be able to follow it."

Here are my six piles: my old family photos; my photos from college and after college; my husband Bob's old family photos; recent photos of Bob's relatives; photos of Bob and I until we had children; and photos from the 1995 Detroit Newspaper Strike, which Bob and I were involved in.

Once things were sensibly sorted, Caitlin said each pile should go in an archival storage box, which are available at Archivalmethods.com and many other stores and Web sites. Archival boxes, she says, are made from acid-free paper, which will not damage photos and preserve them longer than regular storage boxes.

Albums: Over the past eight weeks, I have faced up to my failures at organization in grueling detail. But over the years, I have done one thing right. When my daughter was born more than five years ago, my husband Bob and I took lots of photos with a film camera. When we had them developed, I put one copy of each usable photo in an album in chronological order. The first photo of the first album is me holding my daughter Maggie in the hospital about 10 minutes after she was born. We continued this tradition after her brother, Charlie, was born three years later. The most recent photo in an album was taken at the National Zoo three months ago with Maggie and Charlie, both wearing sunglasses, sitting at a picnic table near the panda exhibit.

The other copy is in a file photo box, easy to find when I need photos of Margaret and Charlie to share with relatives and friends or for collages or other art projects.

The albums are stored in my children's rooms because they love to look at the photos of each other. But upstairs in the attic, I have about five other photo albums that were filled out years ago, as well as my wedding album and my parents' wedding album.

Negatives: Somewhat surprisingly, Caitlin urged me to keep all my negatives so there are two boxes in the attic filled just with them. I think this is ridiculous because, as even she admits, if you have a photo, any processing firm can make you a copy without the negative. But Caitlin was adamant: "We're keeping them for the moment," she said, "at least until I can do some Internet research on this." I called Kodak and asked a spokeswoman how long negatives should be kept. "Forever," said Nancy Carr. "These are your memories. They are precious. Images fade. Negatives never do."

In general, Caitlin does not recommend storing photos and negatives in an attic but because mine is climate-controlled I have her permission. I'd love to know how and where you organize your photos. E-mail me at organize@washpost.com.

A word about saving and storing digital photos: I'm embarrassed to say I never use my digital camera but I know I am not the norm. Caitlin says it's actually easier to organize digital photos than film photos. She suggests photographers download their photos onto their computer using one of the many photo software programs available, such as Shutterfly.com or Snapfish.com. Create a folder with a name and date, such as "Beach Photos, 2008." These programs allow you to remove any photos you don't want even before downloading. This is an important step, she says, because many people have digital cameras filled with outtakes they have not pitched yet. And that's when organizing digital photos becomes just as exasperating as organizing film photos.

Next WeekOrganizing Paper
Last WeekOrganizing Furniture


Photo Gallery
Watch Home Deputy Editor Liz Seymour transform her 700-square-foot attic.
» Photo Gallery
11 a.m. ET
Talk paint chips and decorating tips Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
» Submit a question now and join the discussion

About the Series

Got an attic abandoned to clutter and chaos? For the next 11 weeks, join Home staffer Liz Seymour and professional organizer Caitlin Shear sort through, toss out, tidy up and reclaim the space -- one step at a time.

About Liz

Liz Seymour, deputy editor of The Washington Post Home section, grew up in a four-room apartment in Brooklyn with two very organized parents and almost no closet space. Now she lives in a center-hall Colonial in D.C.'s American University Park neighborhood with her husband, Bob, children Margaret and Charlie, and one appallingly overstuffed attic.

More in Home

House Calls
Getting the most leverage from a redo of a room.

PHOTOS: Organizing - James M. Thresher; COPY BY: Liz Seymour - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Janet Bennett Kelly - washingtonpost.com

© 2008 The Washington Post Company