Musings on Photography

The Work That Remains, Part Two

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on May 15, 2007

 In the comments on this post, Mike writes: 

One of my questions with regard to the change in photography from film to digital is whether or not one’s “early work” can survive. With film (and prints,) one has to make a conscious effort to get rid of it. You have to actually pick up that box and throw it in the trash. With digital, so few photographs are actually printed and the lifetime of digital storage so limited that the situation is reversed: one has to make a conscious effort to retain the old stuff. Sure, while the lifetime of digital storage is up for debate (not starting that here!) it is almost certainly shorter — in some cases *much* shorter! — than a properly processed and washed print.

I don’t think I agree, here.  My earliest work, done when I was a kid in the 70’s, is essentially gone.  I have a small fraction of the negatives I made.  But the rest of it?  Gone forever. 

It turns out that unless you actively maintain an archive, it doesn’t much matter whether the representation of your work is encoded as gelatin-silver on mylar or paper, or as bits on a disk.  If you don’t keep it all corralled together, it drifts away.  At no time did I make a specific decision to ditch the negatives I made when I was a teenager – I just didn’t make a positive effort to preserve them.

As for the idea that traditional prints will last longer than digital prints – I disagree.  For color materials, the jury is in on this, and the consensus seems to be that none of the traditional color materials (with the possible exception of Cibachrome/Ilfochrome) will outlast inkjet prints.  And as for traditional gelatin silver B&W prints, as I’ve explained before, I think that it’s not so much that the jury is still out but that the case hasn’t been presented at all.  I have, for years now, searched for controlled testing of the longevity of current gelatin silver materials, and so far I’ve found nothing.  I have, in fact, pretty much concluded that the idea that gelatin silver prints might not be as ‘archival’ as everyone wants to believe has been swept under the rug – the problem that no one wanted to confront.

 All those photos from five years ago — are you going to make the effort to copy them to a new DVD before the old CD starts to deteriorate? A decade from now, are you going to go back to your work from the year 2000 and back it up to whatever storage medium is then current? Or are you going to let it fade away, and (perhaps) be glad that your “early work” is doomed to oblivion?

I’m not trying to make a judgement here, by the way: I’m just curious whether you think you’ll be incented to keep up the storage refresh cycle for the indefinite future, and whether you think it matters.

That’s easy.  My digital archive strategy is not to archive data to backup media like CD-R or DVD-R, or even more reasonable solutions like LTO tape.  Instead, all of my digital data exist on multiple disks, spread across multiple computers servers.  Everything.  That includes letters I wrote to my grandmother in 1983.  Email I recieved in 1981.  Every exposure I made with the Olympus C-2000z that I bought to see what digital cameras might be like.  Every scan of a negative that I’ve made, every raw file from the EOS-5d, every photoshop file that is a descendent of those scans and exposures.

And, when a disk fails, I replace it, and the data are replicated again.  Right now, all of those data are replicated across no fewer than three disks in three separate computers here at my home, as well as off site backup.

In order to wipe out the data, not only do all the copies at my home have to be destroyed, but the copies stored offsite must all be destroyed as well.  Simultaneously.  This would require a cataclysm of biblical proportion.  If that eventuality comes to pass, I will be far more worried about staying alive than about the fate of my photographs. 

The big issue is not making the data persist into the future.  The big issue is making the ability to read the data and interpret it persist into the future.  I would point out that the ability to interpret gelatin silver negatives as silver prints suffers from the same problem – in the not so distant future, it may not be so easy to run that process and get an acceptable result.

5 Responses

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  1. Rory said, on May 15, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    Well, just in case you may have been contemplating throwing out your old 4×5 negatives along with the ‘work that remains’ prints, please don’t. The old pictures have a brooding, mysterious atmosphere that are magical. I don’t know whether you have consciously changed your way of viewing the landscape, or that the conversion to digital capture resulted in an unconscious alteration in the way you record a scene; there is something different, other than the obvious use of colour in preference to black and white. Not better, nor worse, just different. I apologise for blurting it out so, but it’s been bugging me. Weird, it is. With some photographers, I can’t tell the difference between their transition from film to digital, based on looking at their pictures. But in other cases the converse is true.

  2. Kjell said, on May 15, 2007 at 11:27 pm

    I couldn’ agree more with you Paul. I too lost track of my old slides collection at some point. It was during a period of 5 years or so that I dodn’t do any photographing. I really thought my slides was stored safely in boxes, but when I tried to find them they were all gone. I have no idea what happened, maybe the gnome took them. Anyway, I still live a life in happiness and joy, even without my old slides (I think I wrote about this in my own blog a couple of months ago – still happy).

    The most important factor, as you say, is active maintenence.

  3. Tracy said, on May 16, 2007 at 6:26 am

    A random comment from me, not having anything whatsoever to do with your post, alas. I don’t usually do these things but for some odd reason I am this time. I was recently tagged and am now tagging you. Basically (if you want to do it, but you don’t have to of course), you list 7 things about yourself that people may not know and then list 7 other blogs, tagging them. My post is up today if you want to check it out.

  4. Mike said, on May 16, 2007 at 8:10 am

    Paul, you have obviously thought about retention of your materials and have gone to serious effort to protect them from degradation. Commendable but as someone who has worked in computer technology for almost 30 years now, I think it highly unlikely that very many photographers, even professionals, are that well protected. And, really, that was my point: looking beyond you for a moment, the vast majority of digital photos are never printed. There are no prints to argue longevity about. As for digital storage, most folks have no idea that this stuff is not and was never intended to be permanent. I’d love to see a study of how many digital photographs from the first generation of consumer digital cameras remain, in any form. I’ll bet that the percentage which still exist would be so low as to shock. I’ll go further and suggest that, statistically, the remaining percentage is so close to zero as to make no effective difference.

    That probably isn’t an epic, HBO-sized tragedy, I agree. We have lots of banal, ordinary snapshots of anonymous people and places that no one cares about (in most cases, in my opinion, rightly.) But for a lot of serious digital photographers I believe that there will come a time when they’ll want to go back to earlier work and not be able to. Much weeping and gnashing of teeth, blame and “I told you so”. Too bad.

    I used to worry about that: that the accidental record of the anonymous was being lost. Then I looked at my old photographs and decided that it was probably no great loss, even from those who cared to make more than a snapshot. The world needs photographs by Edward Weston — but it doesn’t need every negative he ever exposed, every print he ever made. (Replace Edward with the name of your favorite photographer. Makes no difference.)

    Anyway, I actually find it rather comforting to realize that digital photography, like the chemical processes before, is still subject to the garbage collection effects of entropy. So little time, so much crap to throw away. 🙂


  5. Shift « Musings on Photography said, on May 30, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    […] time back, Rory commented: The old pictures have a brooding, mysterious atmosphere that are magical. I don’t know whether […]

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