I had always been content with jamming my photographs into shoe boxes -- or, lately, leaving them out of sight, out of mind on my computer hard drive. It's not that I didn't appreciate those bygone moments: my sons in puffy life preservers leaping off a dock, my mother as a teenager in her cuffed jeans. But the demands of the present kept getting in the way of organizing the past.
One afternoon, though, it hit me: My friends had stacks of photo albums; surely I could do the same. I trolled the neon-lit aisles of the nearest craft store in search of ideas. Rounding one corner, I found shelves choked with watercolor washes and rub-on letters, miniature paint bottles and embossing tools. Patterned cutouts fast-forwarded through every milestone: birth, sweet 16, first job. Without knowing it, I'd stumbled onto the $2.55 billion world of scrapbooking.
Little did I know at the time, this flourishing industry has spawned thousands of scrapbooking-centric clubs, camps, TV shows, even cruises on the Queen Mary 2. Most enthusiasts are women between the ages of 30 and 50, according to Creating Keepsakes magazine. Standing in the store surrounded by archival paper and C-Thru rulers, I peeked over the shoulder of a woman holding an elaborate faux-Victorian sample of a finished "page." It suddenly all felt a tad off-putting somehow, like an advanced exercise in self-promotion or an ornate brag book. Scrapbooking was at odds, I decided, with my desire to start fresh and clear away the clutter from my life.
But then I met Kathleen. Standing close to me as I looked (a little forlornly) at the endless rows of colored card stock, she said, encouragingly, "It's hard to get a handle on it the first time, but once you do it, you'll be hooked." She began a scrapbook during a tense time with her 14-year-old daughter. "She hardly came out of her room except to eat or yell. After one particularly bad night, I found some pictures of her as a sweet little toddler. I remembered she once thought I hung the moon." Kathleen pasted the photos in an album, wrote captions underneath, and gave the album to her daughter on her 15th birthday. "I didn't know what to expect," she said, "but it was wonderful. I could show her I loved her without putting her on edge. It brought us together -- and I've kept scrapbooks ever since."
With that I began to see past all the frippery. The deeper reasons behind scrapbooking's popularity were instantly clear. "Contemporary scrapbooks focus on personal and family life, creating something that has the appearance of permanence," explains scrapbooking expert and lecturer Ellen Gruber Garvey, who is also an associate professor in the English department at New Jersey City University. "Scrapbooks are powerful for the story they outwardly tell and for the set of personal associations they're imbued with." No wonder so many people consider family photos their most treasured possession -- and one-quarter of American households keep scrapbooks, according to a 2004 survey by Creating Keepsakes magazine.
With basic supplies gathered, I went home to try my hand at the craft. Sorting through my photos, I soon understood why scrapbooks are so compelling. Part photo album, part journal, part family genealogy, part art project, they distill your life's meaning in an accessible and intensely personal way -- and create a record of it for the future. More akin to a work of art than a private photo album, scrapbooks are as much about the creative process as the finished book. If meditation teaches us to separate the inessential from the essential, then the act of sorting photos is a form of active meditation. The true insight of the exercise comes from mindfully choosing which pictures to keep and, more important, which to leave behind. Collected remembrances, both visual and written, act like reassuring glimpses in the rearview mirror. They celebrate and catalog the journey, measuring each mile.
Part of "being here now" is understanding how we got here in the first place. Deepak Chopra explains it this way: "When I quantify myself, I create a person." With this kind of transcendent power, it makes sense that so many women find real joy in making a scrapbook. We've always been the guardians of tradition in our families. What a privilege to realize that with some photographs, acid-free paper, and a pen, we can also weave time.
Text by Genevieve Morgan
Think of your scrapbook as simply a visually-enhanced journal or a narrated photo album. Use these basic tips as your guide.
Edit your backlog of photos in chunks, starting with your most recent roll of film or photocard. Toss out any obvious bloopers first, and then pick out photos that illustrate some compelling moments.
Tell the story.
Narrow down your theme to one event, era, or celebration you'd like to immortalize. For each related photo, jot down how you felt at the time it was taken -- and how you feel now. Use white or decorative paper, handwriting your thoughts or printing them out in your favorite font.
Put it together.
Select a blank photo album with acid-free pages (not magnetic) or several loose pages to bind together later, plus archival-quality adhesive or photo corners, sharp scissors, and some fine-tipped pens. Assemble your scrapbook, letting your imagination guide you. To create pages electronically, go to fxfoto.com for the latest in scrapbooking software.
Learn and experiment.
Find new supplies at craft and hobby stores, like Michael's and A.C. Moore, or online at scrapjazz.com and creatingkeepsakes.com. Learn new techniques from books like "Clean and Simple Scrapbooking" by Cathy Zielske. Make a habit of collecting bits of memorabilia, such as recipes and wrappers, to add personality to your pages.