Regretting Photographs not Taken

Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer (a site I’ve followed for years) has lately acquired a side gig writing occasional articles about photography for The New Yorker. The latest one, The Secret Art of the Family Photo, has sparked interesting conversation both at TOP and at Ann Althouse’s blog.

The questions of what a good family photo is, what purposes it serves, and how that changes as the photo ages, are interesting (or at least should be) to nearly all photographers and many families, it seems to me.

One way I approach thinking about what personal photos I should take is to look back at my old photos and see what I especially value, and what I miss (I have my own photos going back to 1962, and my mother’s further yet). (Note that this is about “family” photos, snapshots for the photographer or the immediate family; art, or documentary work for a larger audience, is another barrel of fish entirely.)

Places I Lived

Specific regrets in this area include the two places we lived in Zurich in 1966-67 (I have some interiors from one of them, as background to photographing us there), college dorms and dorm rooms, the interior of my Bozo Bus apartment, and my first apartment in St. Paul.

I do have some good pictures of the house my parents were in from 1963 until the 21st century, many of them from when Barbara was preparing to sell it, but some earlier too. I have at least a few before the wood siding was replaced, too.

I even have a couple of old pictures (plus modern ones I went back for) showing the house we rented from the college our first 3 years in town (across from the Junior High, a corner duplex we shared with the Jenkins).

Places I Spent Time

I’d like more from the Carleton computer center, though I have a few. The Highschool computer center I have more of, because I hung out there most of my free periods for 3 years.

I did a fair amount of photography around Northfield and around the Carleton Campus, which is nice to have.

Places I Worked

This is a subset of “Places I Spent Time,” of course.

I’d like photos of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, and the DEC office in Bloomington. I’ve got some of Dec’s Marlborough facility where I worked (MRO1), including some interiors (cameras were banned, but I got authorized to bring mine in to take some photos for a presentation to salesmen).

I’d like photos of the various desks I had, at various jobs, with my stuff.

I can often find modern, or even period, photos of the buildings for these categories. Sometimes they’re annoyingly different from what I remember. I always prefer photos from the time I was there.


I mostly don’t have pictures of schools. I found a picture of the high-school the other day, while scanning for our 50th class reunion, and din’t much care for it. The building is very flat and not interesting, is part of it, and nothing important happened outside it for me. But the old building at Washington school has been torn down, and I regret not having a picture of it (I was there for 1st and 2nd grade plus one summer, not sure which, for a science summer program).

No pictures at all of Longfellow, where I was bussed across town to do 3rd grade.

I did a bit better at college, partly because I was shooting for the Alumni Publications Office, and partly just because I was shooting a lot while I was there. I have pictures of the brand new Music and Drama center that they just now tearing down, which I really need to get scanned.

I don’t have much for photos from the Kung Fu class I was in (a roll or two of an aborted project towards a book on Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu that I was going to illustrate; mostly details). No shots of the other students there or the instructors I worked with. Again, I was busy doing other stuff, not really free to take photos. (I do have the people who got me into the class, and others they got into the class, from social photos outside the studio).

Places I Visited

For big trips, I have done fairly well here. Early on I couldn’t afford enough film and processing, so everything is a bit thin, but from 9th grade on that wasn’t a useful excuse any more. (B&W film that I processed myself was about a penny a frame then; the paper for big prints cost enough to notice, but little snapshot prints didn’t use up that much.)

When I knew I was passing through a place because it was interesting, I took pictures to remember, but when it was my ordinary place to be, I often didn’t (and have pictures mostly by luck, interiors as background to something involving people).


I’ve generally done fairly well on documenting people that I saw much of. Same for pets, who are not precisely people, but in terms of photographic regret act about the same.


My particular areas of interest, computers and photography, lead to my working with or owning some interesting equipment.

I don’t have pictures of the IBM !401 I was first paid for programming, or the PDP-8/L that Jeff Hoskins and I wrote the ultimate version of the “Target” game for (which contributed to many breakages of the joystick), or the PDP-11/20 that was my first PDP-11.

I do have some shots of the PDP-8/I, the first non-decimal computer I programmed (I was never paid for programming that one). My first exposure to octal, and to using the actual bit patterns; the IBM 1620 and 1401 were of course binary at the hardware level, but memory was organized in decimal digits (or full characters), and you never really needed to look beneath that to understand what you were doing; decoding the console lights digit by digit was easy.

I don’t have pictures of my Miranda Sensorex, or my mother’s Bolsey 35, or the Leica M3 I owned in college, or the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic system that I traded the Miranda for.

I have pictures of many later cameras, from when I sold them on eBay.

For cameras in particular (more than computers), I want photos of my camera; good photos of that exact model are much better than nothing, but are not entirely satisfactory.

I don’t particularly regret not having photos of bottles of particularly good wine (or cognac). It might be useful to have better written notes, but the field has changed so much that what I learned back when wouldn’t be much use now anyway (or, as at the time, it would be stuff I couldn’t afford; I’ve tasted pre-phyloxera port).


I’ve done pretty well with documenting SF conventions I was at. But I have no photos from things like the Dragaera gaming sessions I was at, or Mike Ford’s magical 17th century gaming group. I was doing that thing where I was present in the moment (and, to be fair, also worrying about disrupting or delaying the games), and I definitely regret it.

I don’t miss snapshots from the Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer concerts I was at early on. I did get photos from the 1991 Cropredy Festival we were at (with backstage passes), and I don’t find myself going back to them very often. Of course finding good photos of those groups performing is easy, but I don’t go around collecting them or even looking at them much, except by chance.


I mostly don’t regret not having photos of my cars (or I have one where it’s the background for some people).

I don’t have photos from the 1958 Atlantic crossing (by ship), or the 1966 or 1967 crossings (on the SS France). I may have Mary’s photos in a box I haven’t looked at yet, I should check; hadn’t thought of that before. I do have pictures of the VC-10 we flew to Entebbe on, but no pictures of the other interesting airplanes I’ve been on (Caravelle, Comet, DC-3, Constellation, plus “ordinary” things like the 707 and DC-8). I dig out and even post the VC-10 photo periodically, so the others would probably mean something to me also.

I took photos at the shuttle launch we saw (from public access, so far away). Don’t think I’ve scanned or made any prints of them, but they weren’t much good, we were too far away for photography really. I’m glad I was there, and maybe should check the photos again but I don’t think they matter much.

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