A lot of the encomia to digital that I've been reading for the past decade smack slightly but distinctly of rationalization. Most such apologias aren't a balanced view. There's no problem with that, necessarily—we're making a case for what we like and what we do, and that's only natural—but the fact has to be acknowledged that for the moment, people are perceived as having "taken sides"—even those few who are, in fact, objective.
The discussion around here recently about "image permanence" (it can no longer be called print permanence, since so few people are printmakers these days) seems to me to have those same undertones.
The reactionary views, the ones that go too far the other way, aren't balanced either.
In any event, I know I've written about this before, but I feel like thinking it through again. So here's my current list of the best ways to preserve your pictures.
1. Be famous. Far and away the best strategy for image preservation, although it can be tough to implement. If you can get yourself on all the lists of "the 100 most important photographers" and secure all the trappings of proper regard by the proper people, from gallery shows to commercial coffee-table books to selling your prints on a regular, ongoing basis for the prices most people pay for a car or even a house, you won't have to worry about preservation. Other people will take care of it for you.
I seem to recall that a pair of artists called the Starn twins even deliberately used non-archival materials (like cellophane tape) in their artworks, and said, in interviews, that they didn't worry about it because it wasn't their problem, it was the problem of art conservators of the future. What I'm saying is that if you can insure, by your fame and renown and the value of everything you touch, that your work will automatically come under the care of art conservators in the future, then you'll have solved the image permanence problem. Or most of it.
2. Make the work good. If you can't be famous, at least be good. I'm going to go on thinking that good work stands a better chance of survival than bad work. If I'm wrong about that, I don't want to know.
3. Make the work valuable. It should be self-evident why this can help.
4. Disseminate your work. In the digital realm this is called "redundancy." It means making lots of copies and spreading them around to different places. This removes the danger of single objects being destroyed by accident or caprice, and increases the likelihood of survivors. One good way to do this is make and sell many prints, or publish your pictures in a book that sells tens of thousands of copies.
I think it's fair to say that Gordon Lewis's picture "Precipitation" will still have people looking at it a century from now—we sold 77 original prints in our Print Offer for the picture, and the picture was published in George Barr's book Why Photographs Work. That's aside from whatever efforts Gordon's made to preserve the picture in his own private sphere. I suppose there's a chance that all the copies of the print and all the copies of the book might find oblivion, but this picture has a pretty darn good shot at survival.
5. Redact the work. What this means is to put your work into finished, viewable form that fully embodies your intentionality—or that looks exactly the way you want it to look, to put it in plainer English. Finishing your work and making it fully presentable allows to work to defend itself, you might say. It allows it to make its own case. Work that other people know how to value stands a better chance of lasting; lots of important artifacts are lost or destroyed because people just don't realize what they are, or what their significance is.
6. Craft objects. I mean "craft" as a verb and "objects" meaning tangible art-product. I've made this case before—finely-made things tend to project their own virtue and suggest, even to the uninitiated, their worth. They're likely to be accorded respect and to avoid the contempt that causes other worthless things to be destroyed.
One old tradition that's gone mostly out of fashion is the portfolio—here I don't mean a single presentation of work collected together to be used as a sales tool or to show off what you can do; I mean creating a set of boxed pictures in an edition, for sale, like Ansel Adams did regularly throughout his life. Every so often he'd create, what, a dozen fine prints, mat them, and put them in a beautiful box with an embossed title. He'd make a certain number of them and sell them. Chances are most of them are still intact—and all of them that are intact are currently highly valued. You can see the pictures he chose in his book The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, which simply reproduces the pictures included in each of his portfolios.
7. Don't burden the curators. I mean amateur curators—custodians—too, not just the professionals who will handle only a minuscule fraction of our work. I'll start off by suggesting that the two baseline requirements are that the pictures be viewable and stable (i.e., "store once" or "save once") without extraordinary measures. The more work that has to be done to keep your work viewable and stable, the less likely it will be to survive. By "viewable," all I mean is that someone coming across it will know what it is. If a stranger could find it and think, "Oh, look at this old photograph," then it's viewable. If, on the other hand, a stranger comes across an unlabeled, outmoded media disk or tape for which peripherals are no longer made or supported, then the work is not viewable and consequently at risk if it's out in the world.
In this context I wonder about the wisdom of the current fad for big prints. Yes, that makes them more valuable now, but at the lower levels of photographic practice that I inhabit, bigness is not a preservative—the opposite seems to be more the case. Give someone a big print and it's less likely to be framed, more difficult to store, and of course big prints are harder to handle and hence easier to damage.
"Permanence" in materials and processes—the topic of conversation almost exclusively when image permanence is discussed among photographers—is really little more than a subhead of this category—item 7-1. The less a future curator has to do to ensure the viewability and stability of an image—the easier it is for him or her to "store'n'ignore" the piece—the better. Nineteen-fifties color prints like illustration 1 from Ctein's column last Wednesday are possibly the worst, because they require expert attention and hundreds of dollars in expense just to become viewable—I'm sure it didn't escape you that that's all his restoration did; he didn't stabilize the original artifact so it couldn't deteriorate further than it already has. That would be an additional burden for true conservation.
8. Don't make your archive too big. The bigger the archive, the less likely it is to survive. Big archives require more of everything—more space, more attention, more conservation, more curation (to get what's worthwhile or useful out of them). Obviously, as working photographers, we need to have all our shooting accessible to us, so our archives tend to be big and inclusive, and this suggestion fights against that natural requirement of the working artist. I think I've suggested elsewhere, though, that a very good strategy to see your work through the next generation or two is to put all of your best stuff in one small box and label it "My Best Photographs." It would be hard-hearted heir who would toss that out. But leave a roomful of crap and chances are it will all go to the dumpster—because no one can do the hard work of separating the few good things from the mass of worthless things. You didn't do it, how could they be expected to?
So now we come down to my opinion, and that's all it is. But here goes. I think anyone who tries to make the case that digital images are more durable than analog ones is just plain crazy. I've been looking at old photographs for thirty years, and in my mind the contest isn't even close, unless you're talking about the periodic "disaster materials" like iron salt prints from WWII or color prints from the period Ctein was talking about. Just my belief, doesn't have to be yours. Maybe I'll make that case someday, but not now.
If you want the artifacts you make to last physically, that's pretty easy, if you assume the object will be given basic care and can stay out of the way of disasters: Shoot 4x5 to 8x10 black-and-white film. Most sheet film is on a polyester base, which is extremely stable, and developed-out, metalized silver (the dark parts of a negative) is also very stable. Assuming "ordinary" care and protection, that negative will last a thousand years without the requirement for further effort. It can even survive the smoke from a fire (which destroys a lot more than fire does, typically—that includes lives, too; more people die of smoke inhalation than burns in fires) and temporary immersion in water, as long as it's "rescued" afterwards.
Of course it's not entirely viewable without being accompanied by a positive, but at least it's identifiable as what it is (assuming people recognize it) without further technology being deployed.
Here's another strategy. Get a few simple archival boxes like this 8x10 Century Box. Make loose 8x10" prints—on archivally processed fiber-base paper if you're printing analog, or an approved pigment inkset / paper combination if you're printing digitally. Identify the pictures by writing in pencil on the back. Add a sheet on top with sufficient information to inform a stranger about the significance of the contents of the box. The boxes hold fifty to a hundred prints (depending on the thickness of your paper) and fit neatly on almost any bookshelf. Work-in-progress is very easy to accommodate in this format—just add or remove prints from the box as your ideas about the sets change.
I'm not suggesting you store all your work this way—just the best of it. How many boxes will hold the pictures of yours you think people in the future will want to have? One, six, two dozen? Even two dozen would be just a short shelf of neat boxes storable in any bookcase. Few people would toss such a small, neat, well-organized archive...
...Especially if you're famous and good. That part's up to you.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.