Richard Newman asks: "Mike, the discussions by Ctein, you, and others, of how long photographs will last, leads me to ask a few questions. There seems to be an assumption that all photographs should be saved forever, no matter what. So I ask: How long is 'forever'? Why all photographs? Will many of these trillions (or more) images be of any value to anyone? In some distant future, will anyone care?" [See the Comments section of the previous post to read Richard's entire comment.]
Mike replies: Obviously what matters most is that our archives remain accessible to us for as long as we might need them. For example, when I started thinking of having this spring's print sale myself, a picture that popped into my mind is a "lakescape" I took in the '80s on 4x5 color film. The work I did in color 4x5 was by far the most popular with other people of all of the photography I've done in my life; it accounted for most of my early sales (as well as most of my early compliments). But I can't find that negative. It's likely that it's in a box in the basement, and might well have been damaged by the humidity and mildew even if I am eventually able to find it. This is a basic failure of preservation.
Another case using myself as an example is that one of my more interesting pictures was taken on a job in the early '90s. It was "work for hire" and I never owned or possessed the negative. I think it's 75% likely that the archives of that employer from that time no longer exist, and that that negative is now gone. So what I'm left with is one small drugstore print that we used as proofs on that job, and one "fine print" on fiber-base paper that I made from the negative at work. Now that I'm thinking of putting together a book of my 60 or so best 35mm pictures—of which that picture would surely be one—you can imagine how important it is to me that the single print I possess was well made on durable materials.
The best case: set-and-forget
Most of everything will be lost over time, no matter what we do. What we're advocating for are a) materials that don't automatically self-destruct, so that the small percentage of them that happen adventitiously to survive can indeed survive; and b) that people think outside of their own immediate individual interests when it comes to the evidence of the things they've witnessed during their time on Earth. It's true that this is no more likely to be of interest to everybody in the future than our work right now is of interest to everybody; but it might be important to somebody, and it might even be important to history, society, or culture.
One problem is that "now" has no idea what "posterity" might value. Ctein used the example of childhood pictures of people who grew up to be President. If your grandson is a future world leader, you can imagine that your pictures of your children will be of great interest to historians—interest that you cannot right now possibly predict.
We just don't know what's going to be worth preserving from where we sit. That's the main reason why I've always been an advocate of image permanence. The example I like to use is from my days as a bookman. There's a class of old books called "incunables"—the word means "from the cradle," and it refers to books printed before 1500. Virtually all of those books were printed using highly archival materials, because that's all they had in those years. A surprising percentage of them survive, because they were extremely valuable and prized right from the time they were printed—not a majority, certainly, but more than you might think. I was briefly the custodian of the rare book collection at a University I attended, and we had one book that dated from 1511 the pages of which looked virtually new—the paper of many of the leaves was flawless white, strong and flexible, the ink crisp and strong black. That's because the inks they used were carbon-based and the paper was made from linen or cotton. They used the very best materials because that's the only way they knew how to do it.
Counterbalancing that is the period just after 1820 or so, when papermakers started to use wood pulp for paper but before they knew about the destructive power of acidifying lignins. Much of the production from that era is fading fast—the pages of books are browned or foxed (mottled), and the paper is becoming brittle and flaking away. Those books will sometimes disintegrate under your fingertips when you turn the pages. Even the books we most want to preserve from that era sometimes require heroic, time-consuming, and expensive measures just to stabilize (arrest their decay). (You have to dismantle them and soak the pages in a deacidification bath, then reassemble them again.)
This situation was mirrored in microcosm in the early days of inkjet printing, except in reverse. Most early inkjet prints faded dramatically and very quickly, especially when exposed to UV sources (sunlight). Very fortunately for us, the problem became a consumer issue—consumer consciousness was raised to the point that buyers were aware of it, meaning that companies could, and did, compete with each other in part by improving the archival quality (life expectancy) of the prints their printers, inksets, and papers produced. This did not have to happen. We might have been stuck with poor print LE in inkjet prints virtually in perpetuity. The existence of the Wilhelm Imaging Research and its established work in the area of permanence, plus, ironically, the extremely poor permance of some early inkjet prints—meaning, they faded fast enough for people to notice—both contributed to public awareness. When most consumers are ignorant of issues like this and poor performance doesn't hurt the manufacturers' bottom lines, they often don't have the impetus to improve. But with consumers clamoring for better print LE and willing to pay for it, the manufacturers quickly developed better papers and workable pigment-based inksets, and even improved the permance of dye-based, consumer-quality inkjet printer prints to an acceptable level.
The ideal situation from a historical preservation standpoint is for all craft-product of items such as photographs to be made as a matter of course to a high standard—in the case of photographic prints, such that they are viewable and stable right from the start and don't require much further attention to remain that way. As I said earlier, most of everything will be lost over time, no matter what we do. That is true even for things we try to preserve. But some things will also survive, just as adventitiously, so that more of the primary sources of the past will be available to posterity—and that's especially true if the survivors aren't crippled by inherent auto-destructive properties.
I also mentioned above that I think it's valuable that people "think outside of their own immediate individual interests when it comes to the evidence of the things they've witnessed during their time on Earth." Also in the Comments to the previous post, Doug Dolde asked, "If I am dead who cares?"
I would imagine that if Doug actually thought about that question, he could answer it. The world doesn't end when one person perishes, and usually only teenagers think that the rest of the world ceases to matter when it stops existing specifically in relation to them.
One possible answer, though, is "maybe nobody." A variant of that is "maybe nobody...at the moment." The things we picture are part of the world that exists now, and are usually, by definition, rather common and mundane to those of us who live within that world. But time is a river; the physical world is actually highly impermanent. The reassuringly solid wall you lean against today might have fallen to the wrecker's ball the next time you pass this way. Even in my so-far shortish lifetime, I've seen things disappear from common use and new things come along that didn't exist when I was a kid. The things that we take for granted today could change tomorrow. When my students used to ask why any of this matters, I'd assign them to go do a portrait of Winston Churchill or take a picture of a city streets with rows of Model T Fords parked on either side. Did you watch the BBC video about Paul Trevor the other day? Even in the short time between his 1970s pictures and now, the "look" of Liverpool has changed, as he mentions, almost beyond recognition.
Another answer is, maybe the creator of the work doesn't care if anybody else does or not. A certain percentage of photographers (and all artists, actually) either destroy their own work at or near the end of their lives or leave instructions in their will for that to be done. (Franz Kafka, for instance, who asked the executor of his estate, Max Brod, to burn all of his work. Brod disobeyed, and so the world now has the literary work of Kafka.) Of course, that's anyone's right, even if, as something of an archive-rat, it pains me personally. Maybe the process, not the product, was the point to them; maybe they don't want other people raiding their raw material and distorting their intentions in the future; maybe they don't want their lesser efforts exposed and analyzed later; maybe they just want to be free of the burden and the responsibility for caring for it all. Fair enough.
A few years ago I talked to an employee at a large local antiques/junk shop. They had a large number of old photographs for sale, and I got to talking with him about them. He said he had a much larger collection at home—more than 12,000 old pictures. I told him I'd love to see his collection some time and he said sure, no problem. I was in a rush at the time and didn't even look at more than a few of the pictures at the shop. Only a few months later, I drove by the building, and it was empty. I poked around in back and around the neighborhood, but nobody I could find knew the name of the man I'd talked to or where I could find him. Opportunity lost.
I would imagine that many of those 12,000 prints would make for pretty dull viewing. Most were probably portraits, or, in the words of the old joke, "pictures of people having their pictures taken." Of course, all of those now-dead, now-nameless people once lived, and you can hardly live without having things happen to you—there are stories to tell about most of those people. In some cases maybe the pictures were rich enough to suggest their stories. The stories behind pictures are preservatives, too. Tell an interesting enough story about a photograph and the photograph becomes richer and more enjoyable to look at. I'll just say one thing—I'll bet I could have found at least a few photographic masterpieces in that collection.
Finally, I want to confess to one ulterior motive that I have, personally, when I advocate for image permanence as an abstract concept. I'm aware that some of my motivation is selfish. My photographic education really was much more extensive than most peoples', owing to the literally thousands of hours I have spent experiencing photographs—in the Library of Congress and the National Archives, looking through the stocks of photo galleries, making the rounds on a regular basis of the galleries of Washinton and New York during my student years and their aftermath, and looking through many less formal collections as well. So I've gotten a lot from old "survivor" photographs—much more than most people have.
But the ulterior motive is this. Remember when I mentioned the other day that I rediscovered the notebook containing many of my very earliest negatives? One thing that struck me strongly in reviewing that notebook now is the nosedive in interest—"content-quality," maybe we could call it—that my pictures took when my attention switched from things that I thought were worth taking pictures of to experiments with the photographic process itself. It's quite pronounced, and it's discouraging. At a specific point in my exploration I started to try out different films and developers, different lenses, tripods and monopods, and so on, and the quality of the pictures themselves goes all to shit. 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.
So I do have this conviction that if people could somehow put themselves in the place of other people viewing their photographs in the future, their work would improve. That audience includes your heirs, your friends, your future self. I've been taking pictures all my life, but there are so many things, so many people, so many places, that were important to me, that I don't have pictures of. 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. I simply believe that if we were to try to second-guess posterity, it would make our work better. And in that way, mulling over image permanence and the reasons for it—the philosophical basis of it, you might even say—can have an effect on how we conceive of what we're doing when we photograph. We'll make better pictures now if we try to show things that people might continue to find interesting and significant as time goes on. That's a prejudice; it might not be true; but it's something I believe.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Dave Levingston: "This discussion brought to mind a couple stories.
"I recently got an email from a woman that said something like: 'You took photos of me for a fashion spread in the newspaper in 1970. Do you still have those photos? Could I get copies of them?'
"Those negs should have been in the files that got pitched from the newspaper when they moved to a new building many years ago. But sometimes I kept negatives of things I liked, and I seemed to remember that I had those negs at one time. I went up to the attic and the first file drawer I opened had a folder labeled 'Hippy Fashions' and contained some, though not all, of the contact sheets and negs from that shoot. I scanned the photos of her and sent her the files.
"Here is some of what she wrote back:
Thank you from the bottom of my heart..really. Seeing photos of me then brought tears to my eyes..in a good way. So many years have passed and I still remember that day and so appreciate experiencing it again. Thank you for sharing it with me. I mean to say thank you for giving me that day, then and again now.
"This reminded me of just what a wonderful time machine a camera is.
"Another good (and certainly more significant) story: Edward Weston's mother died when he was young and he was pretty much raised by his older sister. They remained very close throughout their lives. The sister ended up living in Middletown, Ohio, between Dayton and Cincinnati, near where I live. That was where Edward did what are known as his first modernistic photographs when he photographed the steel mill in Middletown.
"Throughout his life whenever Edward would do a photo he was proud of he would mail a print to his sister. I love the fact that often he would simply fold the print in half and use a standard envelope. Of course the sister is long dead. Her son, Edward's nephew, is an old man. They were getting ready to sell the family home and when cleaning it out they found a stack of photo prints sitting on the floor in the back of a closet. Yep, all original signed Edward Weston prints...many with that crease in the middle from when he mailed them. They took the prints to the Dayton Art Institute and the institute mounted a wonderful show and published a book.
"It certainly does help to be both good and famous."