About the Concept

The idea behind emulsion is that photography is history, and history is as important on a personal scale as it is on a global one. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but what if those words are forgotten?

Like most people, I have boxes full of prints from send-away labs and one-hour photos stuck in a corner of a little-used room. The joke used to be that people were so eager to get their photos they couldn’t wait more than an hour to see them, but then they would sit, collecting dust, unviewed for years. Now, in the age of digital photography, waiting an hour seems quaint, and the boxes fill up with CDs instead of prints. But the images are still there; they still have meaning.

The idea for emulsion came to me one day as I was looking through those boxes for a specific picture for another project; one I knew was somewhere in the thousands of photos that sat in the dark corner, never being seen except in one of these cases where some specific reason forces me to look. As I searched for the picture I knew was there, I encountered hundreds I had forgotten.

I noticed that each small paper folio I flipped through, no matter what store it came from, seemed to use the word “memories” somewhere prominently on the front. I’m sure it was originally put there as marketing, to try to create an emotional response, and therefore encourage people to take more photos, in a time when film and processing drove profits. But now that consumer film is all but obsolete, it seemed more like a reminder of what was inside—like writing descriptions on boxes in the attic, so you can remember at a glance what is inside, without having to open them: Christmas ornaments; baby clothes; memories.

Every time I found a picture I had forgotten, I wanted to stop and show it to someone as I found them and remembered stories behind them. Each one of those prints had a story behind it, but without someone to tell it, it was just a picture. A box full of a thousand pictures might be worth a million words, but I might be the only person that knew those million words.

A while ago my wife came across the box of old photos that belonged to her grandmother. These were photos from when her father was a child; from when the house she grew up in was still being built. To her, these were priceless; to her grandmother, they were a bunch of old photos. The difference was that these pictures had stories that my wife couldn’t know without her grandmother telling them. It was the stories that were the treasure, and the photos were only a key to them.

Once people passed around the packet of prints to flip through at family gatherings; now they might pass around the photo iPod. These days, it’s more likely they might get uploaded to Flickr or Photobucket. The audience may have grown, but the timing is still the same; you look at them and relive the recent past; maybe the vacation you just returned from, maybe the wedding you just attended. The marketing told us that we were taking pictures because they were memories; we wanted to believe them. But they aren’t memories—they’re memory triggers. Real memories are in the minds of the people who took the pictures, and real memories fade. But they can sometimes be recalled given the right catalyst.

The purpose of emulsion is to open up my box of photos and start telling the stories. I encourage you to do the same with yours.



  1. A suspension of small globules of one liquid in a second liquid with which the first will not mix: an emulsion of oil in vinegar.
  2. A photosensitive coating, usually of silver halide grains in a thin gelatin layer, on photographic film, paper, or glass.
[New Latin ēmulsiō, ēmulsiōn-, from Latin ēmulsus, past participle of ēmulgēre, to milk out : ē-, ex-, ex- + mulgēre, to milk; see melg- in Indo-European roots.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition