An old family photograph: the young man in the center is my grandfather; he passed away 22 years ago in 1992.
Back story: my grandmother’s passing last year and sorting of her effects unearthed a number of photographs from a much earlier era; my guess is the mid 1950s; that’s the better part of 65 years ago. There weren’t that many – about 10 in all. Ostensibly being the authority on all things photographic in the family, they were passed to me for restoration. Combined with a recent SSD failure on my primary machine, it got me thinking on a subject beyond backups: how can we ensure our images survive us? Do we even want them to?
I think the latter is a stupid question: of course we do. Any artist or person who cares one tiny iota about what they do wants to leave some sort of legacy behind. The more time and effort you put into it, the more emotionally invested you become*. The irrational part of me certainly wants to know my images are being appreciated by others after I’m gone; the practical part of me would like my descendants to benefit from them somehow.
*Thought on further thought this makes no sense, as once you’re dead, you’re dead. The physical world becomes completely unimportant. But that’s another topic for another time, and probably also another site.
Those ten images of my grandma’s that survived probably did so precisely because there were only ten or maybe eleven to begin with; scarcity attached value, and value precipitated a reasonable amount of care. Studio portraits in that era weren’t cheap (and it seems the technical standards were considerably lower, too – no idea how representative this was of the era overall, but the images had the watermarks of several different studios, all of fairly low quality by today’s standards) and therefore only shot on occasion, then treasured. Retouching was performed by hand on the prints – there are one or two images in there that bring to mind 1950’s advertising posters; shot on B&W film then hand-colored and slightly pastely-looking.
Fast forward to today: not only do we not print most of our images, but we shoot so many that we ourselves frequently don’t remember what we shot. I look through my archives from time to time to find stock images for clients or to illustrate posts, and I’m sometimes surprised by what’s there (as well as what I thought was worth keeping at the time). If we ourselves can’t remember what we have – how on earth is anybody going to find it later? We can’t all get posthumous lucky breaks like Vivian Maier. A big box of negatives at auction implies a serious photographer because of the cost, time and effort required to amass such a catalog; a couple of hard drives might contain management accounting records for a textiles firm in an unreadable format, some secret government controversy, a bunch of dodgy home movies, or the next Vivian Maier. But there are so many of them I doubt anybody will bother; even sadder, I doubt many of them will even survive.
It is said that the more advanced a civilisation, the fewer the number of clues it leaves to its passing and the details of its time; if you carve your art into stone, it’ll probably weather quite well. But if your art is on a digital medium that requires specialized precision equipment to read and decode, chances are it’ll never be seen again once the original creator loses interest – it’s just too much effort for anybody without some degree of self-interest in it.
The restored image. I only had prints to work with, in bad condition on unfortunately textured photographic paper. I set up even, diffuse lighting with flashes, used the D800E and Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar hanging from the underside of a tripod, aligned parallel with the image on the floor under a piece of glass to flatten it. Polarizers and strategic dark flags were used to cut reflections. This image was physically quite large, so I shot it in two halves and stitched it afterwards; a grey card was used to get an accurate read of the existing color to start as a basis to work from. Given that the end goal was to create something that would look like (at least what I envisioned) to be the original intention of the photographer, I tried to recover as much information as possible from the print rather than go for precise tonal reproduction. The raw file was then retouched: dust removal, repairing missing portions, wrinkles, fold lines etc. In fact, the process is fairly similar and equally as painstaking as commercial retouching for watch photography. Retouching complete, I made a copy of the base layer, and desaturated it to work on the luminance channel and dodge and burn for local contrast; the duplicate layer was dialled back slightly to allow some of original sepia color to come through as the original print wouldn’t have been perfectly color-neutral to begin with. A few small dodge and burn tweaks later, and voila…end to end process, about two and a half hours. Needless to say, I’ll be making some prints.
The natural question is of course how can we ensure the survival of our images? To answer this, I think we need to look at both what survives in the popular consciousness/ culture today, as well as various artistic media that have lasted to date – and why. Firstly, I think you either have to be exclusive or prolific; nothing in between. If you’re exclusive, you have to be popular; then the few very iconic images that you produce will be remembered, reproduced and survive in some form or other – perhaps not original. (I suppose in the end that’s a form of homogenised proliferation, too). The more people care about your work, the more collective incentive there is to keep it alive; the popular ‘classical’ photographers like HC-B and Ansel Adams are a good example of this.
l If you’re prolific, then you hope you have so much work out there that some of it survives; that which remains in circulation might attract people to look for the rest. Usually, I think you have to be prolific first to attract attention and then exclusive once you hit critical mass; unfortunately that’s becoming tougher and tougher as more people are circulating their images. A good example of this is Flickr – for the longest time, I used to average about 1-2,000 views a day; some months ago, things skyrocketed up to 50,000 per day in a matter of weeks. It’s stayed there, too – I’d say that’s a pretty good example of hitting critical mass.
Of course, the trouble with any digital medium is that it’s only as good as the devices and infrastructure; no matter how popular you are on the web, if everything suddenly got erased overnight (perhaps by an invading alien force’s EMP) then you’d cease to exist. But prints and negatives wouldn’t; and I admit that’s one of the reasons I’ve been both printing more and shooting more film of late. Reality is that those images have a higher chance of surviving me, and they aren’t even my best work. (I’m pretty sure that if my grandma’s photos were on magnetic tape, they’d be lost forever – both because of degradation of the medium and lack of support today.)
To some extent, we can mitigate the technological risk by continually keeping our archives on up-to-date media; I do that already as part of my backup plan. Fortunately, as technology improves, storage capacity increases, and hopefully longevity, too – early CDR backups were both capacity-limited and didn’t last very long. Not one single one of my CDRs from ten years ago remain readable today – not because of file formats, but because of physical changes in the media. But hard drives, on the other hand, have increased in size sufficiently quickly that every time I fill one, I can buy one of double the capacity and just migrate everything over to the new drive – instantly creating a static backup (old drive) as well as buying myself more space. When one of my SSDs went down, it was a simple matter of getting a new one, cloning the backup, and swapping out the damaged drive – downtime of less than an hour.
I suspect the final buck stops with education, as always. Put it this way: if you don’t teach your children about the importance of appreciating art, creativity and how it links into daily life and personal development, then they’ll never be able to attach any value to a creative work. If they can’t do that, they won’t care about your images. And they might not even know they exist; much less be able to pass that knowledge on to the next generation, or feel inclined to keep your catalog alive. I know it’s one of the things (I can only hope) to educate my future children on…MT
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