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Wednesday, February 19

Preserving those family memories

"What you have to remember is that digital technology is not developed so much to preserve as it is to give people immediate gratification."
 Nicolette Bromberg, archivist, Washington University

It's funny where the inspiration for blog posts comes from sometimes. I don't think I would ever have imagined sharing the thoughts of a columnist on the Malaysian English-speaking paper, the New Straits Times, with you but there you go. It's always been a small world and it's getting smaller with each passing year.

A treasured memory. My dad, on the right, and his pal
Dick Henderson with an American GI they met on their
travels in Paris in 1950. If you're wondering about the
 kilts, John and Dick hitch-hiked to Paris and said
the kilt almost guaranteed they'd get a lift.
The writer is UK-based Wan Hulaimi. In his column, he compared the Rosetta Stone, the 2,000-year-old Egyptian artifact in the British Museum, and digital imaging. The stone has words carved into it in three languages, a real boon to scholars who were tasked with deciphering the script.

Wan said, "...for me, a mere mortal, the fact that we could still see the carved inscriptions (on the Rosetta Stone), the basis of communication in that bygone age and to touch something that was in the everyday life of people that have been, for two millennia, dead, was something that continues to make me, even now, freak out.

"And here the stone drops an important reminder to all those who are so besotted with digital storage of our treasure troves: we cannot see what's stored on disks and even sadder, all these will be lost with format upgrade and data corruption and so on. Many libraries all over the world are now worrying about the cost of these upgrades, the labour and time and money needed to transfer them constantly to newer and better media.

"And then, the money that pays for the whirr and the hum of the computers and the fans and light. Many data storage companies are already drinking deep from our national grid to keep their servers going day and night."

He quotes Nicolette Bromberg, a visual material archivist at the University of Washington, who, speaking of digital storage, said, "As a visual archivist I can tell you that we will have very little of our visual heritage left. Not only is the digital file not permanent but there are even more issues that will play into this loss.

"What you have to remember is that digital technology is not developed so much to preserve as it is to give people immediate gratification."

She said the high cost of maintenance of digital files will simply mean that many museums and archives that hold the digital history of our lives will just give up. Most are run on small budgets and many staffed by volunteers.

Bathing Beauty - my mum, Lena. Taken
by my dad the same year as the Paris shot.
But the point that got me thinking was when she named her own grandmother as a warning to those obsessed with the digital age. Her grandmother kept her photographs in a shoebox to be passed down through the generations. But had she transferred them to a digital storage medium there's every chance that by the time of her passing the original format would no longer be readable.

Think about that for a minute and you'll see it's right. Photographs can lie in a box for forty years and still be enjoyed but how many digital storage systems that are flavour of the month now will still be in use in almost half a century? I'll tell you: none of them.

We've all got old, deceased relatives who passed on photographs to us. Take a look at the photographs on this page. My dad loved Paris and must have made half-a-dozen trips to the city. He also loved photography and took the snap of my mum, not long before they were married, at a local beach. Had digital been on the go then, I seriously doubt I'd have these memories to pick up and enjoy from time-to-time.

It even says on the back of the pic of my John, Dick and the GI, "To two swell Scots for showing a yank around Paris." Try writing that on the back of a memory card. The photograph is dated 1950 - the same year Doisneau took his famous pic, The Kiss, outside the Hotel de Ville.

A couple of generations from now, will people still be able to pick up family photographs and enjoy simple memories like this? Will they even care?

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marty said...

Hi, Bruce. Believe it or not I was thinking about the same things these days.
Last summer a relative of mine gave me a pen drive with some old family pictures. My Dad still has a few of them on paper, but some others like those of his grand parents are missing. As you I'm afraid those digital files won't last as long as the paper prints, or even better the negs.
So I've thought of printing them out and make some repros on film even if this might sound anachronistic to many, these days, Now I'm in the process of making some "real" prints on fiber paper. Don't get me wrong, here, I really don't want to sound polemical when I write "real prints", it's just that that is the way I've ever known photographic prints and I can't get myself to think otherwise, On the other hand I'm not so blind to overlook some positive aspects of the new technology, but still...

Cheers, M.

Nick Jardine said...

Hi Bruce.

Got mixed feelings on this one.

Yes, you can't look at a digital file, it has to be read by a computer and displayed by a screen.

Not like a print which is immediate.

However, isn't a film negative just the same as a digital file ?

Yes a negative is immediately readable, you can discern an image there, but like a digital file, it's in an incomplete state, it's just an intermediary for producing the final product, a positive image.

And i don't buy the issue of digital file formats being a future problem. I can convert dozens of images to a new file format within seconds, and with programmes like Photoshop ruling the roost, there is no way that companies like Adobe will not make converters and software available to update imagery and future proof existing archives.

I understand the archiving issues of running large stores of hard drives and the power consumption etc, but for the average photographer I would doubt they have hard drives running constantly. I have a back up external hard drive which i update a couple of times a month and it just sits in the cupboard.

For me the argument being missed here is the value of hand crafted film based prints, thats the thing that digital cannot compete with.

Yes, as digital continues it's relentless progress, film based photography becomes rarer. But thats also it's advantage, because the medium becomes unique. Uniqueness makes a product more valuable.

Consistently the most precious photographs are vintage prints - film based images printed in traditional chemistry at the time of their taking. Thats what fuels the collectors market more than new digital imagery, and as long as that remains the case, the demand and high prestige held for film based images will continue.

Bruce Robbins said...

I think we have to differentiate between keen photographers such as you and me and people who take snaps that become family treasures. With a bit of effort and some cash, we would be able to keep our digital files stored in such a way that they're are retrievable. It's not, in my opinion, as easy as storing negatives in sleeves but it is do-able.

The problem lies with the snapshooter who isn't particularly interested in photographs as archival treasures. Whereas in the film era, they would have shot a roll or two of film and put the prints in a shoebox or similar for keeping, what are they likely to do with their digital images? Many people don't print from their digital files but just stick them up on Facebook or similar. I don't think it will be easy getting access to Facebook files on a late account holder's account in 40 years time.

If the snapshooter leaves them stored on a memory card I think it's going to be a problem reading something like that in 2060. I can imagine grandchildren going through their late grandmother's possessions, holding up a memory card and laughing it at it much the same way we would do now with a 5.5 inch floppy disc.

The point Nicolette seems to be making is that it's going to be a serious issue for museums who might not have the time, staff nor money to consistently migrate digital files over to the latest media.

Anonymous said...

Another good and thoughtful post, Bruce, and one we should all think seriously about.
We all like to think that our photographs will live on after we have gone and become in some way part of the visual history of our times. For this to happen we have to do more than just shoot film: we have to make PRINTS from our negatives.

I'm sure that the majority of readers here have read the story of, and seen some of the photographs taken by, Vivian Maie;, whose vast archive came up for sale in a self-storage sale after her death. The fact that the archive contained prints probably saved it from being thrown away; after all, who would go to the trouble and expense of making prints from the negatives just to see what they contained? The same is true for our own photographs: if we can't be bothered to make prints, why should anyone else?
Another consideration, and playing devil's advocate for a moment: if prints ensure that your photographs will have a chance to survive you, is digital printing the way to proceed? Digital printing is easier and, for colour photography, probably delivers the most accurate result.

That said (written) nothing compares to a b&w silver halide print, but how many people now own, or have access to, a darkroom? A Google search for a darkroom for hire reveals nothing closer than 50 miles from my home (perhaps a business opportunity there).


Bruce Robbins said...

As you well know, Mike, digital prints can be excellent. I've got a couple from my HP B9180 hanging on a wall and, under glass, I can't tell them from darkroom prints. The problem I had was getting good results consistently.

I wonder, though, what the archival properties of ASDA or Tesco prints will be like. I'd imagine that most snapshooters would be likely to have their prints done when they're out getting the weekly shopping!

Dave said...

My dad fitted a load of stock control computer systems into british steelworks in the late '70s and early '80s, and parts of these systems are still running on the original hardware today. He was recently telling how a power spike had knackered one of the old machines, and they had a hard time recovering the data from one of the old tape drives which was the equivalent to hard drives today. We're talking about kit only 30ish years old being run by professionals who's job it is to keep it running. So digital images shot by joe public who don't really know or care about digital storage? Forget about it. I suspect more digital images will be lost in the next 10 years then will have been shot in the entire history of the human race to date. Its frightening the number of people who don't have any insight into things as simple as backing up your compter, never mind attenmpting long term digital image storage.

Also you've then got the issue of raw files, which don't operate on a standard, so you're banking on software companies maintaining support for old cameras. And you can't even rely on todays companies being around in decades time. Who ever thought 30 years ago that Kodak would go bankrupt? Business is fickle and Adobe or whoever could go out of business tomorrow, you can't rely on them

Gary S. said...

Hi Bruce:

Another good post. One of my most treasured possessions is a shoe box full of negs my dad gave me. Indeed, few modern archival schemes are as robust as that shoe box!

Your post prompts me to offer Gary's #1 rule of archiving: Any archival system that requires regular intervention on the part of the has a 100% failure rate. The only variable is the timescale over which the failure will occur. As we have seen, a shoebox full of negatives and prints can last many, many decades. A computer drive full of ones and zeros? Unknown, but early indications aren't reassuring.


Joe Iannandrea said...

To me it hardly seems worth worrying whether our progeny's progeny will know what to make of a DVD forty or fifty years hence when for all intents and purposes the data on it was unreadable within ten years of being stored. I wonder how many people who think they have their digital images "archived" have any sense of just how volatile optically and magnetically stored data really is. It's funny to think that while more images are being taken now than ever, in a few decades images from the early twenty first century may become a precious commodity.

morris1800 said...

If you look at the situation with amateur cine films. How many people transferred their family cine films onto video tapes and now to DVD ( better hurry). If they did, what then happened to the cine film? A little story if you don't mind . My grandfather was a magician who passed away in 1977. He was the president of the magic circle for a year. My eldest son asked me about this and yes I Googled the question. To my surprise it also brought up his name being credited as appearing on a DVD for sale in America. I should say my grandfather had never been outside the UK (in fact he had never been to Scotland Bruce !). I purchased this DVD to investigate . The DVD in fact had film footage of the Magicians convention in Brighton in 1956. Someone had set up a cine camera ( with sound)on a tripod in a room in the hotel where the convention took place and attending Magicians were invited to stand in front of it and perform a trick. His performance was only a few minutes long which MY grandchildren watched open mouthed. This film footage ( not exactly commercial material) had survived long enough to be put onto DVD in 2009. Strangely enough among a small number of keepsakes I have is the bronze name badge(dated 1956 Brighton) he wore at the convention. Something like film or any physical object for that matter stands a far better chance of not being disposed of or being overlooked. I think the best way forward for digital users in handing down family images is to make sure you leave the location of such and all your passwords to access them in your last will and testament.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Hi Bruce - great post again - as you know I have written seemingly endlessly about this. I love old snaps and get a real charge from handling say an amateur albumen print from the late 19th C . . and it still exists.
A couple of years back I took my small digi-cam on holiday with us, and you know what I've never printed the bloody snaps . . yet, we could always guarantee we'd process and print the couple of rolls of C41 stuff chucked through the Olympus MjU . . so it is back to a compact for me for holiday shooting from now on.
On another note, your Mum at that age, doesn't half look like my Mum at that age!

Bruce Robbins said...

Great story, Andy. Years ago, my mum had a lot of family cine films copied onto video. We've just realised that none of the family now has a VCR...

Bruce Robbins said...

Like you, I've got digital files on a hard drive from two holidays to France that I've never printed either - much to Cath's annoyance!

As for the mums - I've never seen them in the same room at the same time...

MorseBlog said...

I agree with this post whole heartedly. The photo from PAris ai a treasure on som e many level.

My Dad is the family archivist and publishes a newsletter (on paper using a computer) 3 times a year. His stock is diaries, letters, and photographs that have been kept over the years. He has said two things about keeping these things. 1) people don't write letters any longer and so these exchanges are vulnerable loss as emails. 2) label the prints. After someone dies you can never have the abilty to recognize who the people are. Until he identifies the people in the photo it is meaningless to me.

20 years ago my brother passed away. He was an avid and erstwhile professional photographer. I have all his slides and negatives. It took 10 years before I could spend much time with them. But I did scan them and wanted to have something more permanent. I published a book with his better photos on Blurb. These I gave away to family and friends as gifts. Being a book it is permanent. A web presence would have to be maintained.

More recently I have put together a darkroom and taken to printing my brother's photos along with my own. I plan to use these in a hand-bound volume as another means of somehow preserving his memory.

Anonymous said...

It was professional astronomers who ran into this difficulty years ago. While glass plates taken in the 1890's can still be read and yeald usefull information photos taken in the 1970's on the then new CCD'd and recorded on tape are somestimes unreadable

Advancing technology gives but also takes away.

John Robison

Richard G said...

I currently shoot mainly digital, but since my first digital camera in 2004 I kept up film and slides particularly for our annual family holiday. I returned to film almost exclusively in 2008, and almost entirely digital since 2012. So I see both sides. Young people with digital snaps of their children and graduation photographs taken on iPhones will most likely have nothing left in 20 years, probably five to ten years. Some will mention the CD back up of their one hard drive copy of their favourite photo of their first born. I've given up attempting to educate these young optimists. The National Library of Australia reckons three external hard drives is an absolute minimum for trying to keep images. But even that is hopeless. I know my slides are currently safe. I don't need to go and look to see if one just disintegrated. But a single digital file of my favourite photo last year: is that corrupted? If it is and it is then backed up to my external hard drive I've got two corrupted copies of that file. If I swap in the other hard drive to back up my working drive, in case the other external hard drive dies, I then have three corrupted copies and no clean file. The only way to be sure my favourites are OK is to regularly open them and then not copy them to a second backup disc if there is a problem. Eventually I would have to spend all my waking hours opening files to check they are OK, before backing them up again. Or I could keep buying hard drives and retiring them to fireproof safes at frequent intervals, and extending my house regularly to store the safes for the drives etc etc. if you want to keep an image made by a digital camera, print it. Keep a copy in an archival box. There is no other way.