Thursday, June 21, 2007

A case for conventional photography

Nicole, Madison and Jeff

Do you trust digital photography?
I do not. Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with a relative who was a peer of my parents. We looked at her book of photographs, some of whom were approaching 90 years old. Despite the fact that these photographs were being stored in ways that are not recommended or considered archival, they were still in great shape and brought the past to life. One was a special four generation photograph of many long gone relatives. The only relative left alive was my relative who shared it with me. Though aging now, she was then an infant. It was a real glimpse of their time.

You could tell these photographs were long treasured family heirlooms. They were taken on conventional black and white film and printed on conventional black and white paper. This was the technology of their day. You could tell by the expressions on the people being photographed, getting their picture taken was still a relatively rare event. It was something to dress up and prepare for. Despite the way the photos were being stored (their storage methods were far from what today's experts would call archival) the photos endure.

What about digital photos?
In my opinion digital photos have three main problems:

They are easy and abundant
Folks tend to treat digital photos very casually. Cameras are everywhere, even in our phones. Folks may post photos to services like Flickr or ShutterFly, or Email them, but I know few people who are really taking the time to sort them, print them and store them in ways to assure their accessibility to future generations. The very easy, casual and abundant nature of them may be an incentive for folks to not value them and to treat photographs like they are commodities and not family (or organizational) treasures to be preserved. The abundance of digital photographs may serve as a smoke screen that hides the important ones and prevents them from being preserved.
They are tenuous and intangible by nature
A digital image is often hidden away on hard drives that are themselves prone to fail. All hard drives fail and when they do the information on them is lost. Even CD and DVD disks have a limited life span, they delaminate over time. Conventional black and white images are made up of metallic silver and this is very stable. Color images are made up of inks and dyes and this is less stable and to a varying degree is subject to simply fading away. The least stable is magnetic media. It is this magnetic media that is the realm of most digital imagery. Photos stored on photo services like Snapfish and Yahoo Photos are subject to whims of the market place. A bust economic bubble could result in business failures that in turn could lead to the loss of much of our digital heritage. Conventional silver black and white film prints endure.
They require due diligence to maintain
To preserve your family's (or organization's) digital heritage you need to be sure to maintain copies of your digital images on multiple systems and be sure to backup often and be sure your heirs (or current and/or future staff) know how to access them. You need to pay attention to file formats and be sure that you and your heirs (or current and/or future staff) know the format of your stored images and maintain them in a state where they can accessed for generations to come. To accomplish this with conventional silver based photographs you merely need to print them on conventional black and white paper and store them in an appropriate way.

The image with this post is a family treasure. I photographed it with a black and white film camera and developed it myself using archival methods. I then created a digital image by having my conventional film image scanned.

Why I shoot film
In the future, as the digital version of this picture and most of the other common current digital images disappear into a digital dark age, the film based black and white image will endure. This analog glimpse of our time may someday be as rare and as precious as the photos my relative shared with me of my now dead relatives and her as a baby.

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