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Sunday, 12 January 2014


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Reading this made me smile as I can only associate the story with the head of our photography department at Edinburgh College of Art, David Williams with his 'No Man's Land' project.


So here we come to the point of this whole reminiscence: what are the chances you're ever going to find an old digital file under a piece of old furniture?

You've never dropped an SD card that you couldn't find after an extensive search? :-)

The downside is when you find it in 10 years you may not have a reader for it.

Mike: as is often the case your comments resonate. I am -- at this very moment -- creating a syllabus for a one-month class I am teaching to some college students at a liberal arts college in the Northeast on the public policy trade-offs we must confront when developing industrial-scale renewable energy. I just finished my first week of teaching last week and like you suspect that my natural didactic tendencies would have been better served (more naturally channeled?) doing this than my (?) actual profession. My own observation about your various contributions is that you are, in fact, a teacher -- just one in a new non-institutional setting. And while you may once have not had a clear idea of how to market your efforts, whether by accident or design you seem to have done well at fixing that particular problem. We are all the proof of that. Well done! Everyone who returns to your site to read what you have to say and has commented to become part of the community you have created has voted with the one resource they can never earn more of: their time. As Marvel Comics' Stan Lee used to write: Excelsior!

Nothing to do with the main thrust of your article, but I always wanted to be a garbage man when I was little. I figured they lived like kings because they could fix all the broken things people throw away and sell them.

There are still days when I wish I'd followed that dream...

Funny you should write about this.

You, Ctein,or?? was writing about making a hard copy of digital in your column quite a while ago. I took it to heart and started that day. Opened a box 2 days ago and in it, on top, most unexpectedly, was a photo of my closest friend from my first digital camera on my last foray into the canyonlands before a permanent injury sidelined more than a brief walk from the car, and much of my memory.

I had that same thought of thanks to the professor, but my teacher was "the Online Photographer" wish I could recall if it was you or Ctein or??? spent the afternoon in that box ...and happy.

Anyway, thank you. nuff said


I'm sure I won't be the first person to point this out, but in a way, you're teaching people about photography every day with TOP ... thanks!

Sorry to here about your generally unhappy life. There have probably been hints throughout you writing here on TOP throughout the years but I've not picked up on them. Sometimes I feel guilty to have reached 64 and have had a very easy life, at least in parts. Sometimes I think my very short attention span (what they now label ADD) has spared me some of the sadness and regret others feel. Too unaware to be unhappy if you will.

I always enjoy your articles, and this one especially. I can identify with the "save everything" mindset, and our house suffers because of it. Also, although I shoot digital, now, I know how important it is to have prints of my best or favorite pictures, even if they're just 4x6s of family events.
May I remind you that you ARE still teaching; you teach your readers every day. For that I thank you.

1 - So why not go back to teaching as a part time job? I expect you could easily get an adjunct professorship at one of your local colleges, either in a certificate/degree program or in a non-degree program. I would be a change of pace and expose you to new/different approaches and issues which you might otherwise not be in contact with.
2 - As a non-team type - color and b&w, digital and film- I find some of the more extreme comments by "my way" advocates as annoying. My own attitude is Do What Works Best for what I want to accomplish.
3 - As a photographer for over 60 years who has moved around the country, I have, most annoyingly, lost some of my earlier work. It particularly some film which I think would do great in scanned and printed mode. I can only hope for a 'Eureka, I have found it!' moment such as you had.

"So here we come to the point of this whole reminiscence: what are the chances you're ever going to find an old digital file under a piece of old furniture?"

Exactly! I tell this to people all the time! Pick your favorite pictures, get some quality prints made and store them somewhere safe. Someday you'll be happy you did.

What are the chances that the memories "in your phone" will be readable or even still exist in twenty years? Not high, I'm guessing. What if you die suddenly? What happens to your digital assets? Maybe that isn't the first thing your heirs will worry about, but it still matters.

I was going to comment that I wished I had you as a teacher. Then I realized that I do.

Actually Mike, I think you are a hell of a good teacher. I've learned huge amounts from this site.

I came across some old negatives of family snapshots that are over 40 years old. I have been scanning them with a recent Plustek slide/negative scanner and trying to restore them digitally, which has become a painstaking process. The digital prints I have been making via a local photofinisher definitely look better than the older prints, which have been fading. I am hoping that a combination of digitizing, restoring/retouching, and reprinting will keep these photos archived well into the future.

"...what are the chances you're ever going to find an old digital file under a piece of old furniture?"

I must say that I am more and more agreeing with the need of printing, and having actual, physical, tangible photographic prints, as opposed to just bloody digital files on a hard drive somewhere.

A photographic print has a life of it's own. It is a creation. It matters. Because someone took the time to bring into existence. Digital files/images, are like frozen sperm or eggs... stored, waiting to be.

In my own photographic work, I have never, ever, made a real print of my photos. Ever! Even when I was a film guy, the only prints I ever had, were just those 4x6's that came back from the lab when processed... before I even made a halt to that and had them just process the film, no prints. And now, those little 4x6's are almost entirely gone.

You are right though, there is something about a print, an actual photographic print, that carries so much more with it, than coming upon an old digital file of an image does. And that is why, this year, for the first time, I am actually going to put my gathering-dust Epson Stylus Photo R3000 printer to use, and create actual, beautiful, wonderful, physically, tangible prints of photographs that I have taken in the past quarter century, and place upon my always been, but never going to be anymore, bare walls. Hand them out... "shoebox" them, etc.

I am also feeling the same way about books too... wanting physical, printed and bound books, not just again, digital bits on some hard drive, on some tablet or eReader. Being able to give, hand, someone an actually book, than just, here's an ePub, or PDF, or whatever file of it. (I'm just learning that all recently)

I'm not becoming an old, photographer, anti-digital curmudgeon, I am still very much a digital person, more than analog... but feel that digital copies/versions should only be just another format is all only, of "analog" things (photographs, books)... not, an all out and out replacement of... just another accessible means to something we already, physically possess.

Truly excellent bit of writing today. Thanks so much for discussing these personal issues. They touch me deeply.

Re. John Camp's comment: I'm going through the same thing now. My Mom is days away from the end. The family is already sharing photos of our family's past. These marvelous images give us the ability to unearth wonderful memories. Here's to photography… in whatever form. :-)

There is indeed something very rewarding about teaching, especially teaching electives. On the other hand, teaching required classes like American Literature to 35 mostly uninterested students can be frustrating at times (though rewarding once you slowly get the hang of it).

I've been printing a bit more recently, as well as re-processing my earliest raw dslr files in Lightroom and Photoshop. A knee injury has limited my photography for now, but I'm finding some of the same pleasure you describe, and making a few hard prints for my unorganized storage bins. I would never want to go through an injury like this again, but sometimes a life re-shuffle can have side benefits.


As long as I have known of you (since Photo Techniques days) you have been a teacher. Or facilitating teaching. A different sort of teacher. But a teacher nonetheless.

I don't suppose you are looking for sympathy or empathy MIke, and feel free not to publish this comment but I'll send it anyway - I'm sorry you've not lived a happy life, though the fact that you haven't may, I guess, have contributed to your fine writing style which sometimes puts me in mind of that wonderful sad-faced cartoon dog whose name escapes me as I type - Droopy?* Anyway, if it is any consolation, you bring a lot of thoughtful happiness with your intelligent, amusing and sometimes melancholic, even elegiac, posts and I am sure numerous other people would say the same thing.

*I'm not suggesting that you remind me of him, merely that your writing does. Oh never mind. Keep it up, whatever it is - you fire happiness out there to the connected world even if you don't sometimes feel it yourself.

Mike, in answer to your beautiful piece of today: I don't know if it's any consolation, but you are a teacher - to this day, to a great many people I am sure. And a much appreciated one at that.

I'm familiar with the academic degree prerequisite of many univeristy jobs. In my case, its having a mere MA instead of a PhD. It doesn't bother me, as i don't have a great desire to teach, even though I have been told that in the few courses I have taught, I was a good teacher (not in photography). However, it seems that many two year, tech school and universiity extension programs don't have that degree bias and I expect your resume would fully qualify you.

My wife's best friend told us recently, that she intended to buy a portable hard drive for each of her two oldest kids, who are about to move away from home. She would stuff the drives with all her digital pictures from the last ten years or so, so they got a "keepsake" of their childhood, when they left.

We (strongly) advised against this, instead recommending that she take the path that we are currently (slowly) taking ourselves: Create printed photo books containing selected pictures of the most memorable holidays and everyday moments, rather than offer them a hard drive with thousands and thousands of un-curated pictures.

In the long term, this is probably still the most certain way of enabling "stumbling upon" one's photographic legacy. And the likelihood of her kids browsing their childhood pictures would surely be much higher than if they resided on a USB-connected hard drive somewhere in a drawer.

This "shoebox" issue is probably the thing that worries me most about digital pictures. The issue is not so much that I think pictures will get deleted. There is no real reason to delete them these days because storage is practically infinite. The more worrisome issue is that when you leave bits alone in the dark and don't look at them once in a while they rot away, and there is not as yet any real solution to this issue.

The only viable backup strategy for the long term is to periodically make copies of everything. But this requires that you have someone around with an interest in making these copies. When that person is no longer around, the pictures will sit in the dark by themselves and just rot away.

This probably isn't an issue for "important" pictures. But one wonders how many other pictures will be lost that would not have been in the past because they could just sit in a box maybe be OK. I wonder what the relative survivability of digital vs. analog shoeboxes is.

You had a teacher named Mrs. Enz, and so did I, for kindergarten in Seattle 1946-47. What are the odds?

Being only five we would take naps, and Miss Enz (not a Mrs, now that I think about it) would wake us with a Chinese gong she had hanging from a string. She was a nice old lady. Glad I didn't get the bad Enz.

Hi Mike,
It can be tough to have a good memory and imagination.
Is there any sort of teaching you can do one day a week for any voluntary organisations? kids in care, that sort of thing.

I think the popularity of Polaroid is the same reason digital is so popular, ie. it's immediacy. I found some old Polaroids recently and the colour is fading but it's easy to copy them now and reprint them. A 16 yr old we know regularly takes her phone-card to the local shop and uses their print-your-own booth as she realises a print is for the long term. but yeah, I can still read 3.5" discs via a usb reader, but I've got no way of seeing what's on some 5.25" discs I have.

A guy at work is very much 'if it's not black it must be white', 'if you're not for us you're against us', and is unable to see nuances in anything: He can't understand how I can disagree with him without holding the diametrically opposed viewpoint. - That's why I don't frequent forums any more as a poster.

I think with the internet it is now possible to have a niche hobby and even with only one factory in the world it is easy to order materials; the difference might be less choice of materials ,but maybe not, with an expanding world-wide marketplace, so I don't think darkroom printing will ever go away, just become more of an art in itself. After all, you can still buy potter's wheels and home kilns although most of us buy crockery from a supermarket.

Kitchen dresser is what I call them, although Welsh dresser is apparently more accurate, your side of the Atlantic they are a china hutch (not an expression I've ever heard);

sorry for the ramble
best wishes phil.

So here we come to the point of this whole reminiscence: what are the chances you're ever going to find an old digital file under a piece of old furniture?

But you might in a virtual cabinet - years ago I uploaded some pics on Picassa (just as a convenient way of sharing them). Don't think I've used Picassa since. Forgot all about it.

So a little while ago I was configuring a tablet to sync up all my various accounts - and surprise! When I looked in the photo section it had found those images on Picassa and displayed them.

Not quite the same I know, but as time goes on and more and more storage options become available, I think it's quite likely we'll "misplace" images for a time. And of course there's always the change of finding an old floppy under the sofa.

Watching a program about amateur photographers and film makers in WWII during the retreat through Burma I've just realised that we will never have images of any situation that-out last battery life of modern cameras, which is sad.

rgds phil

I'm not sure "balance" is the way I want to understand the concept; there's an ongoing problem in many spheres of discourse where the discussion is so skewed that, in fact, that truth is not somewhere near midway between the two positions (or at least I don't think it is :-) ). Even in the ones you're discussing here, the whole point is not finding the "right" universal answer, and I don't believe you're arguing that all of us need to do film and digital, and darkroom and computer, and color and B&W, etc.

The catch-phrase that I like is "horses for courses". All of those things you talk about are good for something, and each of us should choose tools and techniques that work for what we want to do, and we should respect the choices of others when at all possible. And you believe (as do I) that those choices, individually made, will encompass a very wide range.

While I usually argue for the advantages of digital for archival preservation, because usually (beyond discussions here on TOP) that side is under-represented, I don't need to here. You have put your finger on the clearest way in which analog materials win the archival race -- they survive benign (or sometimes even not so benign) neglect much better than digital information. A properly managed digital archive can last as long as the civilization that maintains it, with essentially no loss. However, everything we as a civilization possess that is over 1000 years old has survived at least one long period of neglect, and that's something to think about.

There are kinds of digital synchronicity that happen, causing us to find things we wouldn't otherwise have found. They're very different from the physical ones involving prints under hutches and other such finds. I don't know that they happen as often, or that they average as interesting; but I know it's not a completely one-way street. Life always had their 1947 picture of my uncle Richard in their physical photo archive, but I only found it when their archive became available online. A friend recently discovered a previously unknown relatively close cousin of some sort because they emailed to comment on a review of a book with family connections that my friend published on LiveJournal. I frequently find books on Amazon I didn't know existed that have some interest, because they come up in searches I do.

That furniture? It's a hutch. Put a fold out desk between the drawers and the shelves and it's called a secretary.

A few years ago I got a note that caused some comment that said "You mom found your secretary in the barn and wants to know what to do"

I remember being on Team Chloride and getting beat up by all the kids on Team Bromide.

I was just going through some old hard drives and laptops this week by turning lightroom loose on them and importing anything it can find when I discovered a few hundred photos from 1996.

Is it a Welsh dresser?

At the beginning of the post it seemed to matter that it might be what the cabinet is called, it scarcely seems to now I've got to the end.


I have lost, beyond finding (as in they are unfound after years of searching, or are destroyed by water or such) far far far more prints and negatives than digital files.

I have found more happy photos I've forgotten about while scrolling through digital files than any other way.

And accidentally come upon more old prints and negatives that recalled horrors best forgotten, for which there was no sane choice but to destroy them in that second, so they were finally gone. Never seems to happen with digital files - probably an accident of how the dramas of my life synced up with changes in photo technology.

So keep prints if you wish, who am I to say otherwise.

But I'll still with digital.

Lois got there before me, but I agree; you are still teaching now. This is why I come here every day; I gave up magazines because they didn't teach me anything new. I've learned a lot reading TOP, and not just about photography. When commenting I have learned to write concisely and to check my facts.

(By the way, where is the rest of Lois's comment?)

I really, really like this post. One of the best so far. Thanks.

Wow, you are an excellent writer! A very moving piece.

This post hit home in so many ways. One of them: While cleaning out my home office last week I opened a box and within it found a cigar box of prints of old friends from my college days. Aside from the many old memories that came back, this little box of photos of friends was almost the only photographic thing that survived a fire in my rented storage unit many years ago. That fire destroyed virtually all my commercial and journalistic negatives and prints from my professional days, as well as the vast majority of my personal photography archive.

It was not until many months later that I realized how lucky I had been -- those souvenir prints were really the only photos of long term value to me in the whole set. At least that's how I feel about, even now 20 or so years later.

BTW, the most rewarding years of my life were the time I spent teaching photography at the college level. A bit like your story, my bosses offered to make my temporary job permanent if only I would get a masters. I didn't. Among other things, I felt my teaching time was done. I treasure that time but have never had a serious urge to go back, and I would not give up the many other adventures I would have missed. But I still feel a small burst of pride when I see a former student's byline in a magazine.

I had this silly daydream one day about buying up all the world's remaining film and coming up with some kind of digital-to-analogue backup system. Then I went back to work.

It's simply too sad to contemplate all the people who end up not doing what they were most suited to. In another daydream of mine, I rid the world of all those self-help clowns who go around preaching that we can all be what we want to be, that there is nothing standing in our way, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Mythology is always more powerful than reality, though, so people keep buying those books.

My condolences to you, John, on the recent loss of your mother. Your remarks about finding and treasuring lost snapshots resonates strongly with me. After my father died I discovered a small cache of prints my he had made as a teenage amateur photographer in 1930's California. I was not at all close to him and never knew much of his youthful interests in photography. But the tiny prints, carefully stored in books, were revelations about this young Japanese-American's life, a life which was on the verge of being abducted and imprisoned in a camp for the duration of WWII along with so many thousands of other Americans of Japanese descent.

Regarding Printing
Digital photography's replacement of the once-pervasive snapshot print with the electronic display presents a good news/bad news duality which I'll not debate here. I will, however, assert that a photograph must still be printed to have any real chance for longevity and fidelity of presentation.

I've long enjoyed making "finished" prints myself and tend to do so in weeks-long binges during creative lulls.

But here’s an idea readers might consider exploring for themselves. During the past couple of years I've adopted a practice I picked-up from a young colleague fresh out of art (photo) school. I make 4x6 "work" prints of images I most want to keep and/or want to use for a particular project.

I produce the prints to have tonality to represent my intentions but they're not generally in final rendering form. Most importantly, the prints themselves are not precious or expensive. I feel perfectly comfortable handling them casually, spreading them out on not-so-clean surfaces, or (and this is great fun) passing them around groups of friends for discussion at a gathering.

I label each print on the verso, sometimes including other notes, and store them simply chronologically in a desktop file box.

In this way my most important images get an immediate physical instantiation, albeit small. I've found this to be an inexpensive but extremely useful and a quite fun practice that provides me with the small prints of yore.

Thank you for writing this, Mike.

Incidentally I came to read this right after seeing John Gossage's response to Capa's photograph at http://getcloser.magnumphotos.com/ (Day 82 -- really wish they would provide permalinks).

There Gossage says "Never do as you are told", which I think is great advice.

A couple of years ago, I visited the grandparents of my ex-wife, who looked at my Leica and realised that perhaps I was a bit of a traditionalist. He had scrapbooked all his family's photos for about 100 years documenting (or more perhaps!) as research to write a book about his family's history.

He then opened up a box of glass plates negatives: photos of his sisters. They had all passed away during or just after the second world war, with insufficient food, they died of consumption. They looked incredible: these vintage photos of his sisters that looked in their teens. I looked up at him, he was almost 90, but he saw his sisters almost as if they were there right in front of him.

I scanned a couple of him, but it reminded me that sometimes it is useful to perhaps leave a physical trace behind.


Dear Mike,

You really should write an autobiography! I'd be the first in line to buy it, and behind me all the other readers of your blog, and then - who can tell?

It's such a great pleasure to get to know more of your personal history, told in your humane voice. Thank you!

regarding this subject, architect Adriana Iura and photographer Tatiana Giustino are hanging prints in trees, street poles, etc in São Paulo.
"The idea is to encourage people to rescue the practice of storing physical copies - and old albums of portraits - instead of just letting them into digital files. Over 100 snapshots were scattered city streets since dezembro. The records include architectural details, flowerbeds and people."


Nice post Mike

As someone who has also had a shortish teaching career (though not in photography but another 'p' subject) come to an end due to a youthful error, I share your nostalgia, though in my case it's old lectures on my PC and not photographs that take me back.

A 'hutch' is where you keep rabbits in the UK, that piece of furniture sounds rather like a 'dresser' (not a dressing table, that's different again). Most usually old-fashioned ones of those in the house where I grew up were called 'Welsh Dressers' and had plates and other homely-type stuff on them.

Mike, the melancholy in this post troubled me deeply, as I share almost all of it. The ten years I spent teaching studio art at a small, middling liberal arts college were the happiest of my life, and by far the most fulfilling. Teaching was my best thing too. I didn't lose my job as you apparently did, more a situation like your son's. But unlike him i didn't leave before the drama explosion caught me in its blast radius.

Saddest for me is the wonderful students I know I missed meeting. I'm still in touch with some of my best ones, lost touch with a few others, and one has already died. Some have been wonderfully supportive to me in ways they probably don't realize, and one I'd lost touch with just wrote me a wonderful pair of emails right before Christmas---I wanted my daughters to see them so they'd know I wasn't just a bum, but they didn't. People who haven't gone through something like this don't understand how painful it can be. Thanks for giving back with your website (and I have bought stuff through here...). Part of the loss I think we feel is that inability to give like we were able to do then. You maybe have this to make up for it a bit (should be a lot!), I'm doing my thing likewise at The LightZone Project.

BTW, John Gossage was absolutely right. He was still at Maryland when I got my MFA at the end of the '80's, in the middle of my teaching stint. He was working on his beautiful Berlin portfolio at the time, great examples of why it is so necessary to see the actual print. He was a good guy, but i didn't get to talk to him much---he kept the department at arm's length, and it became clearer why once I'd been in the program.

BTW, I still haven't cranked up my densitometer yet....maybe this spring...

As i prepared to go to my dad's funeral last week, i grabbed several photos from a literal shoebox of barely-organized prints from my childhood. My rate of photography has gone up greatly in the last few years, and i certainly could have printed more recent photos of dad and his grandkids, but i don't have a good printer and didn't want to deal with the low ink in my printer, or risk bringing lousy prints at the last minute. My dad, having retired halfway across the country, always wanted more pictures of the kids, and the value of those everyday candid shots really came home when i found those pictures of use together over the years. I'm pretty good about keeping my current pictures organized, but i'm also going to make a habit of periodically having sets of those snaps printed just to keep around the house. Because for me, at least, it's more fun to dig through a shoebox of photos than a folder from an old hard drive.

I shoot everything raw, business and personal, and save everything, everything, twice on seperate hard drives.

Every once in a while I go browsing, perhaps once every six months, looking for ideas, something I've missed or could have done another way/better.

It works for me, why not try it?

Your experience with the teaching community was silly and a major complaint of mine. Time was, when a person who was considered a pillar of the photographic community, and a well known professional, could actually get a job teaching photography at an institution of hirer leaning, without any advanced degrees (or college degrees at all!). Now you can be an art school "hacker" with a masters degree and you'll get a position teaching others how to be a hacker too. I can't tell you the trouble I used to have with the people the local arts college was sending me as candidates for my open positions, most all with masters degrees, who couldn't plug in a strobe pack, much less work as a photo assistant! They could tell you what socks Ansel Adams was wearing when he shot "Moonrise Hernandez", tho...

Ditto on the other end with the corporate human resources department. I had to take the hiring process away from them because they kept sending me people with masters degrees and PhD's, with no experience, for senior photography positions. Again, couldn't plug in a pro strobe without causing an explosion. Talked to anyone who' even managed on a high enough level at a corporation to have to hire key people, and you'll find out the number one complaint about who's wrecking corporations is the human resources departments. Their picks are always long on "book-larnin'", short on real experience.

Heard a program on NPR last week about how business consultants are now thinking that the human resource departments might be making a mistake keying their "auto-rejection" on-line applications to college degrees vs. actual experience. Do you think...? Something we've all known for decades now...

Education and employment in America has changed over the last 40 years to favor those who have taken the exact same path as those in power. Can I just say; Bill Gates, Steve Jobs?

I actually have two quite separate 'archives' of my photographs, in a probably futile effort to preserve them. One is the usual backup of the digital files. After a near-death experience when my son nuked my main photo computer with a downloaded virus and 15 years of images hung by the slender thread of a *single* old external hard drive, I've been pretty diligent about backing up all my photo files to at least two separate external drives, with one stored off site.

But I also have piles and boxes of actual physical prints. And despite the added effort of making an inkjet print, and their significant fragility and expense, they are so much easier to access and study than a digital file that I find them priceless. To examine one of my digital images I have to boot up the computer, make sure the hard drive is connected, open up Photoshop, and find the file. Given the thousands of files I have accumulated, it takes Bridge quite a while to bring up the thumbnails. Then I have to decide if I want to go back to the raw file, since Photoshop keeps getting better at converting them, or go to the finished file with all its Photoshop layers. Or maybe open one of the interpretive variants I played with.

Or, I can just open a box and look at a print. And the aesthetics of the print itself are the dominant factor, not all the technical minutiae of file formats and monitor characteristics.

I am moderately obsessed with these distinctions between physical prints and digital pictures. This is a fantastic example of the sorts of things that occur with the physical objects, and a good part of what makes them important.

In this next bit, I'm talking about snapshots, "vernacular" photography, not the things we, the ToP readers, generally aspire to do. But, what most photography actually is:

On the flip side, something I have recently realized, is that the digital has made our pictures different. Because we assume digital, and therefore free, we take more pictures of goofy moments, spontaneous moments. We're pretty much past the "person stiffly posed in front of representative object" which characterized snapshots in the days of film.

This in turn flows back in to prints and other physical objects. We still make prints, and now we make photo books and mugs and T-shirts. Since we now have a much richer pool of much better pictures to draw on, I think these objects are becoming better, more interesting, more genuinely representative of Timmy's Birthday, or My Trip To Paris.

As much as I truly enjoy and love all the different cameras; the light; the travel; the forums, websites and online camaraderie; the books; the lenses; the discovery; the craft; the desert, pocked with old ghost towns and the detritus of time; the negatives; the paper; TOP; the cool, early dawn hours before anyone is stirring; the smell of fixer; backroads (or at least the roads less traveled); seeing the world through a groundglass; discovering a new perspective; carbon fiber tripods with Arca-Swiss heads, platinum and palladium, fine German loupes, archival materials, and - I could certainly go on - but of all the things I love so much about photography, the one thing that keeps me doing it is the relatively rare occurrence of seeing the final print of an image, which was made with my own hand and which truly makes my heart sing.

The Print is the reason and the whole point of doing photography for me. It is the ultimate goal and when too much time goes by without a heart-skipping print, I will begin to question myself as to why I'm even doing this work at all. What's this all for again? Sometimes, I have to go back and look through my old "boxes" at the old favorites to remind myself why I dedicate such a large portion of my life to this pursuit. Inevitably, I'll see one of those prints in there that I hadn't thought of in a while and the spark will be relit. Maybe just enough that I'll make myself go out and shoot something, though I don't feel inspired, and maybe, when the work is done there will be a diamond hidden in the rock and I'll be refreshed and renewed again.

Every print I make, or I should say, every final, finished print that pleases me and warrants "the full treatment", becomes a precious and valuable (and personal) objet d'art. The feeling I get when I hold it in my hands and look at it eminently justifies all of the time, expense and work that went into learning the craft required to make it.

I'm not saying any of this in order to bash digital and especially if you make your living with photography, there is no substitute for the speed, efficiency and sheer quality of the digital process. But I'm in no hurry and I make my art for myself, at my own pace and in my own sweet time.

Much, if not most, of the value I place on the prints that I make comes from knowing what it took to arrive at that finished work. The rest is contained in the knowledge that the print I made is truly authentic, in pure silver or platinum, literally etched into fine cotton paper, destined to endure.

No matter how hard I try - and I have certainly tried - I cannot manage to find or perceive much intrinsic value in the ephemeral "file", no matter how beautiful or unique and I get very little satisfaction from a print made from that file, when I know that it was a computer algorithm and not a hard won hand craft, that brought it into its existence.

Do you ever think of running a workshop? I bet there'd be enough demand.

I don't think it is just photographers. You forgot Team Apple and Team Microsoft.

I'm expecting to replace my computer soon and so have embarked on wading through the contents of the current computer to organize the stuff I'll want to transfer to the new machine and delete the rest. In the course of doing so, I've found any number of image files that ended up getting stored in the "wrong" places over the 7 years I've owned this computer. So stumbling across forgotten photos on the computer is definitely possible.

The time scale this can happen on is much shorter for computers than physical prints, though. While trying to find a missing genealogy file I fired up an old (circa 1997) computer in the basement to search its contents. The last time I powered it up 2 or 3 years ago it worked fine. Now, though, it appears that the hard disk has gone bad.

With computers, the stuff you care about needs to be backed up regularly (so you have multiple copies), you need to verify the backups occasionally to make sure they're actually good, and you need to replace the backup media (e.g. buy a new hard disk) every few years. As others aren't very likely to understand your filing system and be willing to wade through huge numbers of files, printing the most important ones (best work, or irreplaceable images of people and events) or having photo books made is probably the best way to make sure that the stuff you really care about has a chance of surviving.

Great column. Re the shoebox thing: my father was an avid photographer in his youth, yet little of his work survives because it was stored in a basement that eventually flooded. Meanwhile my mother's family scattered all over the world in the 20th Century yet has photos going back 100 years. I think the difference in recordkeeping outcomes is mainly due to greater dispersion of photos among more people in the latter case. I'm sure many images have been lost but there was no single point of failure that could have wiped out the entire archive.

We may incorrectly attribute reliability of storage to shoeboxes rather than to archiving methods that can be applied to various types of storage media. Also, we may perceive shoeboxes as reliable due to survivor bias as we don't consider the shoeboxes, probably many, that have been lost and never rediscovered.

The takeaway from all of this may be that to preserve images one should disperse them as widely as possible, not just among hard drives but also send them to many people by email, print the ones you like, etc.

Or maybe it doesn't matter in the very long run. Three generations from now there may be nobody left who cares. But someone will care until then and maybe that's reason enough.

I'm greatly looking forward to the first class I will be teaching, in May. It's on the photography book, a comprehensive, and I hope inspiring, continuing education class at a local college. I'm working like mad on the curriculum, but if the enrollments aren't high enough the course will be canceled four or five days prior to the scheduled start date. Yikes...

Anyone out there in the Vancouver area interested?

Ultimately the image will be lost whether it's printed or it's digital. Advance 500 or 5000 years and, assuming the human race hasn't destroyed itself, who'd want your images? It will be lost when nobody cares for it. Kinda like gravesites.

I do want to echo that you are very much a teacher - I've learned a great deal reading your work. And as far as serendipitous discovery goes, hard drives are cheap! Folks that delete images to 'save space' drive me insane - do they burn their negatives after a year, as well?

I keep most of my old prints too. Mostly to remind me of past efforts that I might repeat now that I'm better at it (printing that is). Also because my taste, in what I like out of a print, has changed. I love to see exhibitions by master printers (saw the Turnley exhibit in Salzburg, by the way - Fantastic!) to realize what is possible to get out of a negative (celluloid or digital). I guess I appreciate it so much because I can't come close! But it is rewarding to see for myself how far I've come.

I hope you do write your autobiography. Many of us here have read so much of your writing (many books worth I'm sure) that your autobiography would be a 'no brainer'.

P.S. Did you replace your iMac as you planned to this month? I would like to hear your final decision. Sorry if you did an update already and I missed it.

I'm all for team balance. I worked in professional labs to work my way through school and had a lab in my studio for years. I loved the control and it was always part of the whole creative process for me - knowing when I was exposing at the camera, what I was expecting to do with it in the darkroom. I also love that I have the lab in my computer today. I still make prints, but many fewer - but generally of better quality than many of them I did in the lab. Each year I make a printing of my favorite 10 images or so of the last year and bind it or build a presentation box for it or something to give them some permanence. It is a hard habit to break.

I also just finished a project of scanning 50 + albums of my parents (mostly my father's) creation. For accuracy - I finished but my daughter was the primary scanner as we took some money from their estate to pay her for a lot of the initial work - I did cropping, cleanup file processing etc. These consisted of mostly photographs but also documents, pay stubs, buttons, typed letters, handwritten letters, post cards, bad photocopies… etc. in the end about 14,000 individual scans for about 160GB of material. From this I made 3 hard drives for my siblings which had PDf's, PDF portfolios and the original Tifs and PDF's. They also have access from a password protected ftp site. I can tell you that I discovered a lot in the process but also that the small PDF files made the best "discovery" experience. I also found pictures of my own then young family that we don't seem to have duplicate copies of - some polaroids and some drugstore 4x6's, now all scanned and available.

I've posted many of the images from the last 14 years that I've taken digital images and put them up on a web site. I constantly hear from people that way, and my kids found it the best resource for family pictures for school projects.

Paper bits, digital bits all without some effort just become bits without the ability to recall any of them through some sort of decay.

My family recently gathered a trove of old photos, deckle-edge black-and-whites and early color Polaroids and drugstore snapshots in contact albums. Many had faded considerably of course, but most of the images were still recognizable. What had faded more though were the memories that were supposed to be attached to the pictures. Even some of the ones that had names or places written on the back jogged only rounds of head-scratching. Often a little more context would have made things clearer—whose house is that? who is that with mom and dad? and so on. But much was lost. We had pictures of people who must have been family and friends, but might as well have been strangers. My hope is that digital collections will be able to accrete this sort of metadata to themselves, conglomerating Facebook posts and iPhoto tags and Flickr collections and any other type of information more-or-less automatically, and actually increasing in information value as years go by. Yes, there will probably need to be an app for that, but I think that future generation will have many more memories to reminisce over (especially of the trivial, joyful non-events of life that are most of the trillion iPhone clicks expected to happen) than are available to us now.

Mike, thank you for this briliant article. I was suprised that's "Open Mike", because it's 100% photography...
My story: few years ago I was showing some slides to my family. Then my uncle went upstairs and found his slides, made in early '80. Some with macro, some with landscape, some with family. And only those with people a quarter century younger were worth watching. My parents together, me with a big bow etc. In that moment I decided to stop shooting "useless" pictures I'm not very good at (I've tried to shoot like John Shaw) and focus on my friends and family. That's my way and I'm very happy with it.
Digital or FB paper prints, it's emotions that matters in them.
And please, don't write that darkroom is dead, it's my favourite place to rest :)

Let me take a contrary position based on very recent events. A few hours ago I spent some time with a 2nd cousin now approaching 90. I had a handful of prints left behind by my mother who died more than 40 years ago. My cousin could only identify a very few of the subjects (and she's much sharper than I am with an extraordinary memory). As the last human with any chance of doing so, those snapshots are now destined for the trash.
Conversely, my 20,000 digital images are reasonalbly keyworded. Providing someone can open the hard drive, they'll be able to identify all the subjects, locations, and dates. Moreover, although I'm able to use precise search criteria, I'll very often open a whole folder of images to find one, just so I can see what else is in there in case I might find something interesting to print.

Mike, regarding your appreciation of the balance between differing formats, methods, techniques ... I thought you'd enjoy this, http://www.audiostream.com/content/separating-fact-fiction which talks about the same thing in a music format context.

(The author's beat is not merely digital music but digital music played back from files or streamed, not physical media. And he's a vinyl devotee.)

I would in no way question anyone's preference for analogue photography or prints. Options which are, fortunately, still available and likely to remain so. Even shooting digital is no barrier to making prints and photo-books.

But I have lost boxfulls of prints to accidents (stored in a friend's flooded basement when I was moving house) and seldom endure the tedium of wading through the thousands of packets of negatives I did manage to save.

Conversely I have never lost a digital image thanks to a robust backup regime, and it's never taken me more than 5 minutes to locate one thanks to digital catalogues.

If you are talking about keepsakes and legacy then I doubt any of my relatives would ever search my entire catalogue (or boxes of negatives). I am not sure how much I would add to the already well stuffed collections my younger relatives or friends already own. Besides, I have already sent them the best selections of images I have taken of them, and some have made their own prints and photo-books already.

So if you are analogue shooter (and more power to you, I think these arts should persist) it is still an extremely valuable exercise to scan and catalogue the negatives digitally. It is extremely unlikely that common formats such as TIFF will ever become unreadable, but once scanned you can be much more sure that your images will be around, at least for your lifetime, and easy to locate.

I had a Psych teacher years ago who came to her profession later in life, starting college at 50. Her philosophy about starting over was to determine how long it would take to achieve the goal and if she determined that she had at least twice that many years left then go for it. I don't know if that works for anyone else other than her. I can report though that more than once I've used age as an excuse for not following a path and later looked back and wondered why I hesitated as I was "so young" at the time.

Take a photograph, preserve a memory, teach a roomful of students to photograph = thousands of memories.

I can recall in stunning detail almost all the circumstances surrounding pictures from 47 years of photography, can't remember clients from projects designed a few years ago.


MIke, you're one of the best, and certainly the most regular photography teachers I ever had.

Mike, a deeply touching post and wonderful writing. That's why TOP stands out.

I have made it something of a project to scan hundreds of old prints, slides and negatives that my father has. What is striking and food for thought is that the ones that resonate with even people that don't know those in the photos are not the more artistic photos--landscapes and travel photos, say--but the ordinary snapshots of people in the clothes of the time, showing the milieus and expressions of the time. It is a reflection of the relative importance of photography as a documentary medium vs. an art medium as a function of time passing.

Here is another of those poignant stories about "found film", in this case from the Mt. St. Helen's eruption.

Actually, community colleges always seem to need good teachers. Especially ones with real experience in the field they are teaching in.
A good school would probably consider you a good candidate for teaching. One class a semester is only a few hours a week. And think of the articles that would generate for TOP.

Cupboard below, three narrow shelves above? Welsh dresser.

And of course you're still a teacher and a student. Every intelligent person, which you manifestly are, tries to spread the knowledge they have gained and regards a day when they have learned nothing new as a day wasted.

I suspect the piece of furniture you mention is called here in the UK a Welsh Dresser (but it's not used for dressing!).

Loved this column, and I'm beginning to love making prints of my new (digital and film) and old (film) shots. Not yet wet darkroom prints, but maybe some time.

I wanted to say something about the shoebox. My father was an amateur painter and photographer, who died in the last century. My elder sister has most of his stuff. As I've got interested in older cameras, I asked my sister about his old cameras; I was pretty sure he'd had a nice Zeiss folder. She thought she might have got rid of them, as someone had told her they were of no interest to anyone. She told me there was a box jammed full of negatives, which she might also have tossed, as obviously no-one would go through those.

Some time later I visited, and we searched for the camera without success (after I left she looked somewhere else and found a nice Zeiss 6*9 Ikonta that's waiting for me when I next go down to Somerset). But we did find a nicely crafted wooden box, quite substantial (say 20*40*60 cm). My sister was surprised, as she thought it had been thrown out. It was, as she had remembered, mostly filled with tightly packed 6*9 black and white negatives. But at the back we some packets with the name DufayColor on them. At first I thought these were from a particular processing company, but later I discovered about the early transparency reversal process of that name. We had a quick look, and soon realised that these 6*9 "slides" covered the period from 1938 to about 1950, and places from Brighton, Wales, Yorkshire and Ireland to Egypt and Palestine (as it them was) during the war. I was able to take those transparencies, scan them on an Epson V500, and make a photobook for my siblings. It was wonderful.

This sounds like it endorses your thesis. But the point I want to emphasise is the risks to that box, which my sister was confident was useless and had been disposed of. It would have been an easy decision to make. It could have been lost in a fire that affected much of her possessions a few years ago. And once gone, gone forever.

I've been scanning my old negatives and slides, which were in a pretty chaotic state. I'll be able to make multiple copies, and hand them on. I could get copies onto the cloud, spread them around very easily. Digital images decay rather less than some of your respondents seem to think, if reasonable care is taken. My son won't find them under the dresser, but one day, he might be interested to revive them, and make a photobook for his siblings, and his children to come.

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