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Saturday, 19 February 2011


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I spent the day today sorting old prints, C-type ones. They seem to be holding up well, the EP-2 prints from 1983-1992 look a bit softer, but I think they always did just a little. The whites were never as clean as RA-4 and have darkened a bit. And they may have lost a bit of density at the other end of the scale as well, it's hard to tell.
The RA-4 prints, 1992 on seem to be essentially unchanged, I hope ink-jet prints can do as well. Wilhelm rates the better ink/paper combinations about as highly as the Fuji paper I generally use.
They were all stacked on shelves, so pretty good conditions, but nothing fancy.

There's a wire sculptor in our neighborhood than hangs his art on random light poles and stop signs and such. I've been tempted to do something similar with some of my less successful tintypes (actually aluminum) by just nailing them to telephone poles. I'd be curious to see just how well that lavender sandarac varnish holds up.

BTW the wire sculptor's work is here: http://goo.gl/uzad1

Simple...just be good enough so that your prints end up in a museum collection. :)

More realistically, the advent of self-publishing currently allows many photographers, even casual ones, to display their work in book form, subject to its own LE and survivability issues.

This brings up another issue beyond LE and survivability, which is accessibility. Pictures may survive, but who will have access to them? Another issue altogether, and one that brings up all sorts of other factors, technological and otherwise.

You've just anticipated a point from Part II!


As much as we like to tout the longevity of analog media, the fact is, survivability isn't great. Most analog stuff has been destroyed over the centuries after all - for every surviving runestone or cartouche thousands are long since lost.

The way to ensure longevity is the same way our genes do: copies. Lots and lots of copies. We're never going to lose the image of Mona Lisa, or Beethovens Ode of Joy. The original painting may get destroyed at some point, and as far as I know the original score may be long lost, but there are so many high-fidelity copies out there, both physical and digital, and so many new ones created every year, that the works are unlikely ever to disappear.

That's one of the tragedies of the endless copyright term extensions. We're losing a large number of abandoned or orphaned works forever since they can not legally be duplicated and preserved. A book that never made a commercial impact on release is very likely to disappear altogether over time. Very, very few works are still commercially viable after a century; we're sacrificing the bulk of human creative output of an era in the name of protecting that small slice.

It is not the photograph that is valuable. rather the memory or memories. My brother now a resident of Texas and now too of the USA, told me he has no interesting in our family's Canadian past. Our family was United Empire Loyalists and we can trace our roots back to that and beyond. Anyhow, as Mike have marked in pencil all the photos I have collected from the now sold (in 2010 for seven figures) family house,and have filled a wall in my small office of all the framed photos, to remind me every time I look at them of their past and soon at age 65 my current past.
I think that as we become older in terms of years, we wish we had asked more questions of more people, then written down the replies as pencil to paper because only actually written documentation seems to survive, somewhere. Photos fade, and budgets of archival materials are destroyed to allow for more "important" items to be retained.
Figure two hundred years from now will any of us ever be able to return and recall that what was anywhere? Or will there be anything remaining? One may only surmise.

It's funny how humans will endlessly chase exotic technical solutions, but bring up simple but boring solutions and people don't want to deal with it.

Check out the book "The Checklist Manifesto" for a similar thing from the medical field; it's a fun book.

About 12 years ago my wife's grandmother, then age 98, showed us a really stunning photograph of her with her two siblings, taken when she was 18. They were dressed in their finest, and the print was astonishingly detailed. (Large format capture easily trumps the limitations of circa 1910 optics). I believe it was a platinum print. While the image itself was in remarkably good shape, the paper was damaged by water stains and mold, and there were several tears.

I had just gotten a good scanner, so I did my best to repair the image in Photoshop (version 5). I matched the warm tonality of the original, and made inkjet prints for all her surviving adult children, who were delighted.

The original print ended up in the possession of my wife's mom, who subsequently developed Alzheimer's disease and...well, we have no idea where it is now. But at least we still had the digital file and...er, no. Unfortunately this was before I got compulsive about backing up my files. It was lost when my computer crashed circa 1999.

So today the only surviving version of this image we can find is a 12 year old inkjet print. Still looks great, though! It was printed using HP's first generation "Photosmart" inkjet, a huge clunky beast that couldn't print any bigger than 8x10", but had the virtue of using pigment ink in the black cartridge. The prints have held up remarkably well.

I sure get the difference between print life expectancy and real-world survivability.

"I don't think the big destroyers of photos are physical hazards like flood or fire (though of course, those get some of them.) The big thing is, irrelevance to people still alive: the photos get tossed."

"Even if it's just for your own heirs and your family's posterity, take a moment to scribble on the back of your prints what they are—who they show, where they were taken, what the significance was. That was another lesson of my short stint as an attic archivist: there's seldom enough information. My grandmother was nearly blind when I visited, but I found I could describe photographs to her, and she would remember the photo and the who-what-where-when-why."

When my mother died four years ago, we knew the well organized album of early family images. At the beginning, mom had carefully kept the negs behind the prints in the album on acid free paper (What a blessing!). We knew, more or less, the extent of the boxes of later, unsorted and mostly unlabeled family snapshots, the sea of my father's slides, and so on.

What completely surprised and flabbergasted us was the box of old images, from her grandparents generation through her older childhood and her courtship with dad. None of us had ever seen them or recalled her ever referring to them! And many of her and dad are just delightful.

None of us could figure out why they had been kept hidden away, like there was some secret about them. They opened up a whole new, to us, chapter of mom's life - and raised all sorts of questions about the older ones. But she wasn't around to answer them.

A couple of my brothers were able, with the help of a couple of books of family history, to identify most of them. But I found myself little interested in those who came before the grandparents and one great grandmother that I personally knew.

There is indeed a shelf life . . . Just as well, I think.



This is one of those posts that creates a geas upon me - I must answer.

For all the many, many, things my grandfather did wrong archivally, (cellophane tape! non archival paper! crunchy brown glue!) he did succeed on survivability. I have a six volume set of 11x17 scrapbooks filled with annotated photographs, ephemera, letters to and from people famous and obscure. The record is only of his life,and stretches from 1898 through the middle 1960's. Within are quarter plate contact prints of the first class he taught, and visiting-card type portraits of friends, family, and famous people, interspersed with descriptions and commentary about the furniture and artwork he and his parents amassed. (Protip: he wrote up a description and provenance in terrible, terrible handwriting, that he pasted to the back of every single framed thing in his entire house. Sometimes including a little envelope with relevant clippings or photocopies.)

Sadly, fifteen years after we disposed of the estate, I finally found the scrapbooks in a box in my basement. (Among the other things he did wrong, they looked like junk, and were assumed to be part of his wife and kid's hoarding problem.) Almost all the 'stuff' he had cataloged and given provenance to has been lost, thrown away, stolen, donated, or given to friends I haven't seen in a decade. But, I still know his thoughts about what he deemed important in his life, and I know exactly who appears in other family photos now.

There are other successes and tragedies in my family's life. My father left me a half dozen carousels of Kodachrome, neatly labeled with date and place. My grandmother inherited a scrapbook from her family...that has no labels whatsoever, and no one thought to ask her about it until her dementia was well advanced. My father in law died unexpectedly, not more than six months after turning down a request to tell his favorite stories to a tape recorder. On the other hand, my other grandfather was a professional photographer, and left me 20-odd albums, neatly labeled, with contacts, 5x7's and 8x10's he snapped with his beloved Rolleiflex and Spotmatic.

Oh, and one final victory for my Grandfather and his scrapbooks? He made a second set for my dad :)
Backups are priceless.


One thing you missed that is worth pointing out: Where are the negatives for the old family photos? Those always disappear first and certainly would be the best route to replacing an aged or damaged print. When my Uncle died in 2009 I inherited the house and the contents. while my brother and his son were packing up the antiques, I was digging through everything to locate all of the family photos, and newspaper articles dating back to the 1920's, that were about family events and deaths. So it was all saved for scanning and dissemination to the family. Once I have large amounts of spare time. Instead I shot a couple hundred digital shots today, and mostly for stitching.


There's a fascinating exercise in abandoned picture detective work turned into a movie called "The Green Dumpster Mystery." The movie has won awards, been shown on Israeli TV, but as far as I know not been distributed commercially. See http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_yad/magazine/magazine_51/pdf/page09.pdf
. The filmmaker, Tal Haim Yoffe, saw a few pictures poking out of a dumpster in south Tel Aviv, stopped, extracted what turned out to be a larger trove, and spent the following year teasing out information about the family, none still living except through a few inlaws and descendants. The movie built itself in a very nice way as interview after interview became scene after scene. At the end he was able to make permanent the story of three generations of a family, with the grudging, at first, thanks of the handful of close survivors.


I am interested in your having found daguerreotypes in the basement. I have long been a lurker at antiques fairs in the UK where one can often find old pictures mounted in plush lined gold-coloured metal frames, that the sellers claim to be dags. Usually they are not dags, but ocasionally they do turn up. The best one I found was in just such a frame but the seller did not know it was there and neither did I, because it was behind what I think is a calotype which fell out of the frame after I bought it, revealing the dag behind it. I have found daguerreotypes very difficult to photograph because the reflected light has to be exactly right. All of this is softening you up for a question that I almost dare not ask, because of your vast experience. But the question is, are you sure you have found actual daguerreotypes, because the picture you show seems to have been photographed without a problem. Sorry for having the audacity to question your findings. [Now I lurk around antique fairs in France, where I now live permanently]. cheers
Ken Croft

My Great Great Uncle William Brown was a keen photographer and my Grandfather inherited his collection of glass "magic lantern" slides. We worked as doctor all over Scotland and travelled when he could all over the world. I remember viewing slides of the Pyramids. When the family house was sold in the early 80's my Grandfather gave the bulk of the slides to a local professional what happened to those and him I don't know but a series my GG Uncle took in Shetland he gave to the Museum up there. They paid him £300 for them which came as a bit of shock!
You can see him in action here:
The other tale I have to tell is of an album of family photographs that ended up in Australia. It had inscription in the inside cover with my Great Grandmothers distinctive surname in it "Hurst-Hodgson" and mention of her address in Bedford, England. A lady bought in a flea sale and posted the inscription on a Genealogy website in 2006. I took up researching my family history in 2008 and came across it then. She kindly sent it to us here in England. It contains the only photos of my Great Grandmother as a young woman clearly enjoying herself, she died shortly after my Grandfather was born after a difficult illness and life. It was a great comfort to my Grandfather to see these photos.
So if you want your photos to survive - make sure they are of Museum Quality and survive long enough to become of interest to a museum! and don't ever doubt the benefit of an inscription on the back of photo or album in ensuring that they connect with your family or others.
The web and electronic media can be a great threat to photographs but also a great benefit it's easy to make multiple copies and store them elsewhere surely the greatest aid in survivability just make sure people know what they are


So you'd be convinced if I published a worse photograph of it? [g]

I don't mind you asking--in fact another commenter raised that possibility, but we decided after discussing it not to publish his comment. I believe it's a Dag, although it's possible it's an Ambrotype under glass. I admit the casing is a bit more typical of Ambrotypes, but I can get the image to "go negative" by turning it this way and that against the light, which is the reason I always thought it's a Daguerreotype. And it *is* difficult to photograph.

Pulling the image "sandwich" out of the case I find a Daguerreotypist's label, but there's really no way to confirm for certain (well, for ME to confirm for certain, as, no, I'm not an expert on early photographs) without pulling the sandwich apart, which I'm unwilling to do because I'd almost certainly damage it. (Speaking of preservation...I was notorious as a kid for destroying things by taking them apart to see how they worked. [g])

It's also quite possible it's one of Frederick Archer's "fake" Daguerreotypes, the so-called collodion positive, which would explain the glass, the "sandwich" and the appearance of a black backing.

I could take it to a real expert, of course. I'll think about doing that. Could be interesting.


I'm sure it will be covered but I have CD's from around 2000 that are already unreadable. I now have multiple hard drive back ups in different geographical locations. I will just keep copying onto larger and larger hard drives, but I'm sure that will change one day too.

I have old family albums that I have scanned and sent out to cousins. I just wish I had more antique photos to look at, there are far too few in my family.

Survival is no longer a photography thing but a total economy.

What you need is a kind of multi-region digital archive maintained by legal foundation with endowment from subscriber (long gone). People goes to visit, like graveyard sweeping (in Chinese tradition done 2 times per year, or at least one time) and pay a bit to increase your ancestor (and you in the future)'s endowment.

That may keep those online and offline forever.

It is a kind of Congress Library for the society, by the society and for the society. In case there is a nuclear war between US with someone, another cultural revolution in China, or ... The thing must be multi-area e.g. one in US, one in China and one in, say, Russia/Brazil. (Rama would build these in 3 sets.) If system is provided against flood, nuclear war, ... etc. (like seed bank in some icy places somewhere), it might be good enough and still viewable by descendants and other interested people.

To avoid technology issues, one may even store another copy in microfilm in a time capsule.

Trouble is photographs today are too common and too easy. Taking family photographs used to be an event, even 'snapshots'. Still remember my mom getting out the 616 Kodak box camera and loading it with a roll of B&W just purchased at the drugstore. And then trying to get my 4 year old butt to sit still long enough in the bright, harsh summer sun to take a picture. My cute little blond 2 year old sister was much more compliant than her hyperactive older brother. With only 8 shots there weren't many second chances. Then, leaving the exposed roll at the same drugstore and waiting a couple of weeks until that magic yellow envelope came back with eight deckle-edged glossy prints. And there I was, with a twisted snarl, looking to the left at my sweet little sister who, I was sure was trying to get her hands on my box of animal crackers clutched tightly in my greedy little hands. Like I said, 'an event'.

My favorite essay from Looking at photographs is John Thomson's Old furniture on page 36.

I use to sell used furniture in a little shop much like the one in the photo and on flea markets where only the broke would need to visit or eagle eyed antique dealers looking for a hidden gem. The furniture usually came from house clearances of the deceased. Once the relatives had rifled the things they felt worth hanging on to, they'd call us.

I've sold dead mens shoes, suits, spoons, knifes, forks even hair brushes & dresses. We'd simply lay them out on the floor or table at flea markets that had a lot more in common with the markets in Don McCullin's shots from In England, than the one's you'll find from the Rose Bowl.

I wonder how many Rosebuds I sold or tossed in a skip. The value you place on the things you care about will likely die with you. If your photography is a record of your living, you have to hope that they end up with somebody who truly sees the value in them

Mike, a good column and read. In 1965 a woman in our town died with no heirs. Through family connections I was one of the first persons to go into her house. She never threw anything away. We found four steamer trunks in the attic - full of human hair! We even found the receipt for the building of the house - dated 1883 for the princely sum of $800. She had many cameras dating back to the early 1900's - old box cameras and Zeiss and Kodak folders. All the photos stored in many boxes and albums were in perfect condition. She was a meticulous recorder of history and most of the pictures were labeled with date and info. One in particular caught my eye. It was a picture of a group of men on the back of a railroad car surrounded by a crowd. I turned it over and with the date was the notation "Teddy Roosevelt came to town today and made a speech". I turned it back over and peering closer there was Teddy! You just never know what will turn up.

There is always that chance that your old prints will be immortalized by Superbomba... http://superbomba.tumblr.com/

There has always been a lot of talk about the archival quality of a print,
but I'm only concerned that it lasts as
long as I do. The photos that end up on a website will no doubt outlast me.

One of the things that drives me nuts at the flea market is seeing a pile of snapshots that have been removed from albums next to a pile of albums with captions and little bits of glue from where the photos were. I always tell the vendors that I'd pay $100 for the album intact but that the destroyed album is worthless to me. I encourage the rest of the TOP readership to do the same.

In my collection, I have a number of 1960s color snapshot prints that are faded almost to invisibility. I also have quite a number of Ektachrome slides (which I note are missing from your list) that are visibly faded. And a few of my early B&W prints that are yellowing locally or in general from inadequate washing. So to me, "archival processing" is even more to the fore than it used to be; I'm seeing the results of not doing it right, or picking the wrong materials, in my own work and my own collection.

The general question of life expectancy is very much to the point. I'm probably going to present people with a too-big collection when I die, even if they're neatly sorted by date and many are tagged with names and locations. (Not expecting this to be a problem any time really soon, you understand.) I've been thinking about tagging them as to which historical archives might care -- stuff I shot at college going to the college archives, stuff from before that to the historical society in my home town, and so forth. A bunch of my early work in science fiction fandom is already archived at a place called fanac.org.

I've also placed a number of photos under creative commons licenses, and put some up on Wikipedia when I had relevant photos (mostly science fiction authors); one of the most common relatively late (1976; he died in 1988) photos of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein that you'll find around the web is mine. There must have been hundreds of people shooting snapshots of him at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1976 (I saw other people shooting, there were thousands of people present, and he was the Guest of Honor, and making his first convention appearance in many years), but I haven't seen any of those on the web yet.

Survivability is not only dependent on materials or random acts of god but the forethought of the "archivist". My parents house, about 200 miles north of Milwaukee, doesn't have a nice dry attic to put items out of sight/mind for decades. The choice is either a somewhat damp basement (I don't believe your folder-stored prints would have survived, flood or not) or the unheated storage shed out back. Most of my bedroom was moved to said shed when I moved out... will any of it last until I can get it to better storage? Maybe, maybe not.

As for actual photos, the thousands and thousands I have on my hard drive are probably on par with the Rose Bowl flea market except for one thing... I'm a firm believer in metadata. Every photo I have kept since I've gone digital 11 years ago has the location (text) embedded in it (geotagged coordinates for the last 5 years) event or reason in the folder name and for the last handful of years, some additional keywords. Should someone ever find a permanent method of storing digital photos (short of printing them!) at least there will be some context (and therefore some worth) to the mediocre photos found on the hard drive purchased for a dime at the flea market of the future.

Mike wrote: "It's also quite possible it's one of Frederick Archer's "fake" Daguerreotypes, the so-called collodion positive, which would explain the glass, the "sandwich" and the appearance of a black backing."

Mike, it does look more like an ambrotype to me in your reproduction of the image, but in any case, daguerreotypes are really easy to tell apart from ambrotypes without having to take them out of the case. They weren't called "the mirror with a memory" for nothing. Daguerreotypes, even ones with a fair amount of tarnish, are going to appear to have a silver mirror finish at various viewing angles with the faintly negative image, and then become positive usually by angling the reflection of the velvet side cover onto the cover glass of the image. The image literally is formed upon a polished silver surface, the silver having been plated over a copper plate and then buffed to a high mirror-like state before sensitizing the plate. Ambrotypes are altogether different in composition and should not easily go negative on you under most angles of viewing, but they are indeed underexposed wet collodion glass plate negatives. They generally have a kind of tan or milky gray appearance to midtones and highlights of the image. To create a positive viewing experience out of the thin density negative, the glass plate negative was then physically backed by black paper or velvet fabric which causes the negative to appear as a positive. Although you can find an angle under some lighting conditions that will allow the "negative" image to be seen, it will be faint but not associated with a mirror-like polished silver appearance. A tarnished appearance is also rare to non existent on ambrotypes. Deteriorated ambrotypes will show glass corrosion and cracking/flacking in the image. Tintypes were made the same way as ambrotypes but instead of using a glass plate negative, the photographer bought a package of thin black japan-varnished iron sheet to use as the substrate upon which to coat the wet collodion process. Then name "tintype" is therefore a bit of a misnomer since the metal plate wasn't tin. Hope that helps.

Another interesting thing to note is that the media we record on, for the most part, like DVDs and hard drives, won't last that long. Hard drives fail, and dvds become unreadable. So unless we continually back these all up on newer discs/devices, the originals will be lost.

I wouldn't be surprised to find prints of our digital files that are all that remain of the original image. So a print is basically a permanent digital file backup! (Although it's more like a jpeg than a raw file).

I think that the real lesson in this article is that prints end up in boxes, albums, etc.. and actually survive to reside in someone's grandmother's attic to be discovered by a relative perhaps 4 generations hence. I am not as optimistic about the billions of digital images of family life that are now accumulating. How many people are going to actually migrate all of their family photos in a disciplined manner to each new form of storage before the old form of storage either degrades or becomes obsolete and unreadable? I suspect very few.

Because my friends know that I am "really into photography and computers" I frequently get asked about which camera to buy, which editing program, website, etc.. Here is what I tell them: When you return from your vacation/kid's birthday party/graduation/etc.. take that little memory card of yours over to Costco/Walgreens/CVS/Target/etc and make prints of the photos you like. If you are not disciplined enough to put them in some sort of archival album, put them in a shoebox. Your great-granddaughter is much more likely to find the shoebox than your computer hard drive or Picassa page. Yes, make a cool webpage of your images or put them on Facebook for friends and family to see now, but please make them into prints. Physical objects have a way of persisting. If you don't want boxes of prints and you care about the images you can also make them into a photo book using one of the online services provided by Apple, Shutterfly, and their ilk.

I'm afraid that some of us pessimists would end this discussion with "what's the use" as even cave paintings, petroglyphs and pyramids continue to erode—er, survive.
Movie films (most theatricals still use film stocks) are stored in underground salt mines and perhaps we (archivists) should find our own caves as well (backyard bomb shelters come to mind).
BTW, can you just imagine a well-written and thorough treatise by Ansel Adams about digitizing his negatives and prints might be like...
...'zeroing and leveling' out the planes of the scanner, proper cleaning of the glass platen, choice of scanning lens for correct 'drawing' of the image and resultant 'compensating' scan to achieve wide latitude and good d-max, all the while atop(TOP) of an International Harvester wagon.

If you can accurately date the image to 1840's it's almost certainly a Daguerreotype. Since the wet plate process didn't exist until 1851.

Okay, here's my idea for "Hybrid archiving":

Define a format, using a 2-dimensional high-density bar-code, to encode about a megabyte of data onto a letter-size sheet, with about four square inches set aside for text and a small thumbnail. Use jpeg encoding (but document it and build it into the software, don't depend on jpeg viewers remaining common. Be sure to use some sort of ECC format, to deal with some level of loss over time.

The specs as given may be asking too much out of the high-density barcode (nearly 20KB per square inch), though. But even a 100KB jpeg is actually a fairly detailed picture; a 1MB jpeg is really quite huge.

Now, you can convert your photos to moderate-resolution digital forms and store each on one sheet of high-quality paper, printed with carbon B&W inks. Anybody finding them will know they're photos, and have some idea what they are of (from the text and thumbnail)

This relies on the persistence of the documentation for the software standard (doesn't exist yet) and the continued existence of scanners or sufficiently high-resolution cameras.

Hi Mike

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