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Saturday, 18 June 2011

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Stephen Poliakoff made a wonderful television drama that deals with this subject, "Shooting The Past": "Shooting the Past delves into a world quite separate from modern life, and demonstrates that the preservation of the past, in order to tell the extraordinary stories of the lives of ordinary people, can be astonishingly powerful and revealing".
Very moving and a must for all those interested in photography.
Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shooting_the_Past

"Most of everything will be lost over time"
M. J.

You reminded me of this:

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15212

well, time to revisit Roland Barthes' "Lucid Camera". The first part on "studium" and " punctum" offers a criterion when and why a photograph is interesting. The second part, more interesting in my opinion, is about "time" as the punctum (chapter 39), photography as the "it has been" (chapter 47). Roland Barthes discusses that "the freeze of time" is what makes photographic imaging completly different from painting or from movies.

yes, photography is a time freezer, and this is why you need to keep a few of your images around..

Mike,
Somedays you're good. Today you were very good, Thanks. -- RC

So:

Take pictures of stuff because you like it.

Take the time to learn the technique, if having "better" pictures is valuable to you.

Go through the effort of preserving pictures and images in a more permanent way, if they reflect something about your character and nature that you feel is meaningful to preserve and pass on.

If there is any other residual value, let history figure that out for itself.

My definition of archival is medieval illumination. CU Boulder has a nice collection of leaves from manuscripts, some of which are on the order of 1000 years old, and I had a chance to handle some of them a while back. These objects are exquisite. The parchment is still clear, the inks are vivid and dense as the day they were written. Even the guide marks that the monks used to align the writing are still legible.

It seems to me that as the transmission of data has become easier over time, the care that we take to make sure that later generations can read that data has declined. "Archival" prints nowadays are rated to last 200 years. An oil painting can last 500+ years with care. Yesterday I was talking to someone about ways to make data last, and made the remark that the best you can do is to etch it in stone: nothing else is anything near as archival. Well, almost: the paleolithic drawings in Chauvet's Cave go back 35,000 years, and are the oldest known man-made images. Otherwise, we're talking fired clay tablets from Sumer, and Egyptian inscriptions, things literally carved in stone, or at least in fired clay.

I feel that we don't think as much of our work as we used to, to take such little care that later generations can know us.

Archival color inkjet prints now will probably last longer (at least on display) than previous photo technologies. Probably not as good as B&W. Probably not as good as oil painting. In terms of "what it means" that we care about 200-year permanence, to me it means that we know are materials aren't at the top line yet, and we're still interested in improvements. But they're now easily in line with, or better than, many other artistic media -- watercolors and such, for example.

Dear Archer,

These are all good examples of the extrema, as opposed to the common and practical. They tell you how long such an artifact might last, not how long most of them last.

I can reasonably predict, based on know the establish physical and chemical properties of the components, as well as established historical behavior, that a decently-made toned silver-gelatin print on fiber-base paper can potentially last more than a millennium. Probably several.

I'm not expecting many of them to make it that long.

pax / Ctein

@Archer,

Unless a dipstick tries to build a subway under an archive as happened in Cologne, Germany. They lost a complete record of the city to water, frost, dust, mold, etc. One little (eh 2 people lost their lives in the proces so make that LARGE ) mistake in 2000 years of history is enough to end everything.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,612129,00.html

Greetings, Ed

Tangential to your main point, but when you said


Before that I was taking pictures of things and people that interested me. After it, I was taking pictures of tree trunks and leaves and things local to me that looked vaguely scenic. The pictures are worthless.
I was reminded of a Wendy Ewald book where she gave cameras to kids, who then photographed what was meaningful to them. My equipment and technique are better than theirs, but many of their pictures are more interesting than mine. Sigh...

the path of life brings us for decisions difficult to make I decision to lose my " life backpack what means everything " and travel to africa only with a bag a camera a mac and not much money. Was born in the 50's of the last century was working as a photographer for many many years so beside my darkroom studio equipment I also had to trow away my negatives ALL the first pics from the cameras I owned the zorky or mamiya 330 or the hasselblad or tha sinar 4by5 or the work I made in cuba was one of the first photographers there had nice exhibitions with it all the travels all gone. I can tell you trow your work away is painful and need a good glass of good wine after. The digital work I want take with me with a mobile drive I lost a week before I left it crashed. So no visible memory lane anymore I can tell it free the mind it make me more aware of the now and the knowledge that we most be living free. I think keep your best 60 pictures is a good idea drink a good grass of good wine and let it all go become free.

Hans

As another Richard ("RC") said, "Today you were very good, Thanks."

This line in particular struck a nerve:
"In the future, neither you nor anybody else is going to care a whit about how saturated your reds are or how little noise you've got in the shadows. They, and you, are going to care what's in the pictures—the stories behind them, what they meant to you, why they were important."

Thinking of buying a good camera phone today to make sure these daily snapshots don't dissappear. And then start working on the rest of the imaging preservation pipeline : )

Very good post. Thoughtful, mature and real. Not going to be appreciated by people only counting the lines in the corners of resolution-charts, but that isn't the point.


I'd agree photo-books are a good idea; even works colleages' holiday snaps are interesting, there is just something about a book that is inherently appealing I guess.
I’ve got some digital photos recently of 1930’s adverts in faded paint on house walls for now defunct petrol (gasoline) companies; ephemera of ephemera of ephemera perhaps?

all the best phil

Actually, Wilhelm Imaging Research (WIR) contributed to the problem of early ink jet print fading, not helped it. WIR concentrated on light-induced fade and largely ignored fading from ozone (even though others noted this issue at the time).

Te result was that WIR gave its top ratings to some ink jet products that quickly underwent drastic color changes due to ambient ozone.

Even after WIR started including ozone fade tests in its ratings, a number of the products it tested showed only a "test in progress" designation that persisted for years,even though ozone evaluation takes much less test time than other fade tests.

Other researchers contended that at least some of these products in fact had poor ozone stability.

"... you can imagine that your pictures of your children will be of great interest to historians—interest that you cannot right now possibly predict."

About the importance of photographs, this was also published Saturday ...

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/prairies/duchess-will-visit-alberta-site-where-her-grandfather-trained-pilots/article2066336/

“Our main focus is to have actual, documented, real proof that he was here”

"Mr. Greig could help with that: He says he has photos of Mr. Middleton and the other officers at a graduation dinner for a group of trainee pilots. But he plans to give Kate first dibs before publishing them."

Think what you want about royalty. All of a sudden a family's history is worth documenting. And photographs that were important to a few now become important to many.

Good articles Mike. Lots to think about.

Robert,
Winnipeg

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust BUT:

I look at photography as competing for longevity with pigment based art like oil paintings. Should a photo last hundreds and hundreds of years, like the oldest oil paintings? Probably not yet but, that should be a long term goal.

The longest lasting “art” form is sculpture. See Egyptian history for how long is long for 3D art. If you really want your work to endure, switch to stone. But even stone is worn away, blown away, and its original purpose forgotten with the sands of time.

However, duplication is something that keeps things lasting longer. Another ancient practice done by Rome then Western cultures.

Human beings are so diverse in their thoughts about what is important. An acquaintance of mine and I were recently having a conversation about travel we have been fortunate enough to enjoy over many years. He was talking about a trip he had taken with his father when he was a young man and said he remembered a picture of him and his father fishing. He said that day of fishing had been, for him a highlight of the trip. I asked if he had the picture and he said he might have it somewhere but he had no idea of where to start looking. But I got the impression that, for him, actually holding the picture in his hand was not important; the memory of the picture was enough to trigger the memory of the day.
Human beings, if they have the time and resources are, by nature, creative. This takes many different forms… music, painting, writing, photography etc. and the importance of these endeavors varies widely from person to person. If you spend your life figuring out how to keep your family from starvation a photographic record of your family is way down your list of priorities.
But then the question arises: what is important. No one can answer this question for another person. We can’t really miss something we did not know existed. I suppose we may have an undefined feeling that we are missing something but there’s no way to know that for sure.
And, our idea of importance lasts only as long as we do. At one point the compositions of J.S. Bach, the art of Picasso and the photos of Ansel Adams were really important to those artists. But they care not one wit about them today. Because they were creative geniuses their work has remained important to a great many people but not to all.
I hope the pictures I make of my children and grandchildren will someday be important to them and that hope and that possibility make me want to preserve what I’m creating today. I’m also sure that the pictures I made of mountains and rivers last year in Zion National Park will not be important to them at all and once I’m gone I won’t care either.

"the care that we take to make sure that later generations can read that data has declined"

I don't know...is it really fair to judge our mundane against antiquity's best?

I mean, surviving documents may prove that the best materials and best craft make a difference, but they can't prove that that a great many things weren't made poorly, kept poorly, and didn't last, back in the day. We can judge the best techniques and materials of the day from what survives, but what can we know of the worst?

Medieval illuminated manuscripts, for example, were the province of well-trained and highly disciplined archivists, but what about lesser contemporary documents--symbols or drawings or words that were scratched out on scraps of paper, rags, skins and future kindling as iou's, tokens of affection, talismans, orders, receipts, battle maps, etc. by untrained non-librarians who didn't much care whether they lasted longer than a particular use and were more concerned with repurposing valued materials than preserving the contents?

Oil paintings require some minimum of proper materials and technique, as well as care in handling and storage. In many ways, this is easier to do now than it was hundreds of years ago. Surviving cave paintings happen to have been in dark storage in climate controlled environments. For all we know, exposed rocks outside those caves were festooned with important art that weathered away quickly.

Meanwhile, as Mike outlined in a previous post, we've developed some pretty lasting stuff, not to mention the revolutionary role of photography as a tool of archiving and conservation.

But this is so much academic digression to the sound premise that care is probably the biggest factor in whether something lasts or not.

I thought the commenter's advice on the other page about taking extra steps with a small selection of "best of" is good. I have the best of folder, but haven't satisfied myself with what extra steps for it. (I also save everything else on at least two hard drives.)

I have a nagging concern about image formats in future years. Native RAW formats for different camera models have been piling up, supported after delays, in Photoshop, etc., but even the oldest DSLRs are only a decade old. I'm inclined to think support for older RAW formats may dry up another decade on - the danger then being not that images are physically destroyed but that there is no consumer software left to look at them or edit them. (Of course one expects institutional archives will be saving all this technology for another century or two, but only for specialists and special collections, not everybody's great-grandchildren.) It seems that convertion to something like Adobe's DNG or lossless TIFF is likely to emerge as the answer but I'm not certain of it yet.

"but even the oldest DSLRs are only a decade old."

Albin,
21 years old. The first DSLR was the $30k Kodak DCS-100, built on a Nikon body, in 1990.

Mike

@Archer:

When comparing the quality of the past to the present, you need to be very careful about selection bias. It's like the people who say that houses were made better 100 years ago because the 100 year old houses today are so nice. But you're not dealing with a random selection of houses built 100 years ago; the ones that were shoddily built have mostly fallen or been knocked down, so only the well built ones are still around.

Similarly, we only know about the really durable records from Egypt and Sumeria. We don't know how much of their work was shoddy, third rate junk that didn't outlast its owners because by definition that stuff hasn't lasted until today to let us know.

On a slightly unrelated point, it's worth pointing out that the best hope of preserving your work is to make it worth copying. Even the most durable medium with the best care has a finite lifespan. We don't have the originals of the Bible or any of the great classical authors, but we still know their words because people thought they were worth copying again and again. If you want your work to last as long as theirs, the best hope is to make it able to transcend its medium as theirs has.

Very nice piece Mike, thanks!

@Albin:

There's some hope with Free/Open Source programs. David Coffin's DCRaw is able to decode raw files from cameras going back to the Kodak DCS 200 (vintage 1992). Since the source code is available and it's written relatively robustly, it should be available for as long as anyone wants to keep redistributing it. Admittedly that's not as good as an open format like JPEG or DNG, but it's better than trusting Adobe to keep supporting your camera. (Though programs that use DCRaw internally for their conversion will presumably keep all the formats that DCRaw supports.)

Albin, I always love reading FUD about raw image support disappearing. If your format is supported by DCRAW (http://www.cybercom.net/~dcoffin/dcraw/#cameras) your raw files will be decodable long after you're dead, should anyone care enough to try. The edits you've made to your raw file in Lightroom/DPP/Aperture/Bibble/whatever? They may disappear, which is why you should always save a tiff of your raw file after you've processed it--at least for your best images.

The permanence of a photograph can be an archival print, backed up files or the web. Once something gets posted somewhere on the Internet, it gains a life of its own, replicated in duplicate data centers - half of Googles traffic - 7% of all Internet traffic - is machine to machine duplication of data at data centers. There is even the "Wayback Machine" that is recording archives of old websites. I found some of mine back 17 years, to the beginning of the web!
But permanence can go further than that.
Back in the 50s, Howard Wolery, my high school art teacher, attended many sports car races in the US and took many photos. As he aged and was hobbled by Parkinsons, he asked me to take care of them. I digitized them and put them on my website, then gave them to the Watkins Glen Racing Library which is collecting and cataloguing racing photos, programs, etc.
I did the same with thousands of my own photos of races in the 60s and 70s. I gave the library the negatives, what prints I had (including several autographed by Carroll Shelby) and files of the scans.
In addition, hundreds of those photos have now been preserved because they have been reproduced in books, magazines and on other websites (with my permission.)
I am regularly getting emails from people who are in the photos or now own cars pictured, wanting copies or help in authenticating cars, often during restoration (Want to know what color the Austin Healey was that Stirling Moss drove at Sebring in 1955 or what sponsor decals were on the Ford GT that won Sebring in '67?)
My favorite was providing a big auction house Howard's photos of Briggs Cunningham for a catalog when they were selling his Rolex (it brought $2.4million euros, I believe!) The payment was substantial - and donated to the WG library in Howard's name - sadly he died the week before it was published.
While I never expect anyone to want to see the arty stuff I shot 50 years ago or maybe even the 2000 shots from the safari last month, the ones I shot that document some history have real value to many people.
BTW, I have also convinced several others to donate thousands more racing photos to the WG library. If you have photos of historic value, there may be someone interested.

If even one archive saves a copy of the software for some particular RAW format for 200 years, I expect it'll still be accessible to anybody who finds files in that format. Short of a collapse of technological civilization, I expect knowledge to become more accessible as time passes.

@ M. G. Van Drunen
"... I’m also sure that the pictures I made of mountains and rivers last year in Zion National Park will not be important to them at all ..."

Funny, that comment resonated with me. I was there also, same time, and other places out that way. And I look at it differently. Through those pictures my children, etc, catch a glimpse of who I was, my interests, my viewpoint, my "talents", aspects of me that they would not know otherwise. My kids actually hang some of my work on their walls - they're my most important clients - I will continue to live through them. Photos can be pretty valuble that way.

The loss of even one snapshot is still a loss. It's a (very) small piece in the puzzle of who we are and what we do.

Living now, how can we possibly predict what will be of interest to historians/anthropologists of the future?

It is true that on a case by case basis, very few photos have sufficient merit in themselves to be worth preserving, but en masse they say a lot about our culture, values and beliefs.

I think if our knowledge of history was based purely on 'works of art' (in whatever medium) it would be greatly distorted - largely because such works are conceived with a view of what others may think.

Fortunately our 'official' view of the past is balanced by a wealth of folk art, letters, diaries etc. which have survived. Doubtless these were considered of little value by the people of the time (or even the creators) yet are of immense value now.

With so much of 21st century life being recorded on impermenant/disposable media, I think there is a very good chance that historians of the 24th century will have a better record of the Victorians than they do of us.

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