The Online Darkroom Store

Sunday, May 4

What does Bill Gates know that we don't?

If I were Melinda Gates, I'd be worried. Her husband seems to want to bury everything he holds dear deep underground. I learned just today (you may already have heard, I'm just catching up) that the 11-million photograph-strong Bettman Archive at the Corbis photo collection is stored 220-feet below the surface in a Pennsylvania mine, covering many acres and protected by armed guards.

A few years back I read that Gates is part-funding a "Doomsday" plant seed vault deep within the Arctic circle on a Norwegian island - again in an underground storage facility. This I can understand as there is so much genetic manipulation of plant life going on that should it all go pear-shaped or there's a big meteor strike it's good to have the ability to re-boot - although it would be better, in my opinion, if we didn't footer too much with nature in the first place.

There are bucket loads of irony in the apparent fact that Monsanto, probably the world's largest bio-engineering concern, is also a backer of the Norwegian project. What does it say to you when the company that is doing more than any other to alter the genetics of plants invests in a Doomsday seed storage vault?

But underground storage of photographs? Isn't that a little over the top? Unless Gates knows something that we don't in which case it might make perfect sense. The Corbis vault includes some of the world's most famous pics including iconic shots of Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein. There are also thousands of photos of presidents, celebrities and scenes of everyday American life.

Now, no doubt this is all very valuable stuff but I can't for the life of me see why it couldn't be stored just as well and more cheaply in a purpose-built facility above ground. Is it not possible to have a temperature, humidity and pressure-controlled operation without basing it underground?

What are the advantages of underground storage? Well, short of a big EMP strike or solar storm, the only reason I can come up with is to guard against some cataclysmic event taking place on the surface. God forbid that something like that should happen but, if it did, would we be too bothered about preserving a shot of Einstein in a rowing boat in his PJs or Marilyn having her skirt blown up around her bum?

But anyway, enough conspiracy theory. There is a lot of good preservation work going on at the Corbis underground facility, such that it's expected that the photographs - real photographs, not digital images - will last around 2,000 years. And far from just transferring the photographs onto some form of digital storage, great pains are taken to protect the film, plate or print-based originals.

Here's an interesting video showing what's happening at the underground facility. The gentleman who features in the video is Henry Wilhelm who some of you closet digital shooters might recognise as one of the leading guys when it comes to estimating the archival properties of digital material. He became known to me when I went though a spell of printing digitally and wondering how long it would be before the inks from the printer would last before fading (answer: a couple of years but that was a while back and things have greatly improved since).


Anonymous said...

Your comment about the longevity (or lack of) is timely, Bruce. I've come to the conclusion that if any of my poorly focused and badly composed photographs are going to survive my demise by more than a few weeks they will do so as prints rather than digital files or film negatives. But which to do? Inkjet or silver halide?
Digital inkjet prints probably deliver more resolution (I know, not the only criterion) and are easier to produce - which means they might actually get made.

Silver halide prints from the darkroom have a proven track record of longevity - provided they have been fixed and washed correctly - but they are time consuming to make, which probably limits the number of photographs taken that make it to the printing stage. Many a masterpiece will probably languish on the contact print.

So how long do inkjet prints last nowadays if made on high quality fiber-based paper? Any idea?


Bruce Robbins said...

Not exactly sure about the longevity of digital prints, Mike, because I've been away from that side of things for a while. When I was digitally printing a few years ago I seem to remember that the inks and materials had come on in leaps and bounds and their life expectancy wan't much different from real photographs archivally processed.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Mike - go silver.
Ink Jet prints are squirted by machine; proper, beautiful silver prints are produced by your blood, sweat and tears - they are as intrinsic a part of the photographic process as loading film in a camera, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Plus, when your survivors look at all this crap you've produced after your demise, I would say they might be more likely to keep something that was a product of your labours from beginning to end, rather than a bunch of squirts!
Sorry, just my grumpy old, backed-into-a-corner-printer twopenneth - I've had enough of being regarded as an anachronism/antique.
As for underground storage facilities, sensible in some ways, but they'll have to get the flood protection spot-on.