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Monday, April 1, 2013

Images of Old Maine

The image on the left was shot with a Canon SD850 IS and printed on a plastic banner in 2008. It's about 20X24. The image on the right was shot with a 2.25x2.25 format Ciro-Flex in 1981 and printed a few years after that. Both are fading, but the image on the left has spent considerably more time in the light than the one on the right, which has been stored in a flat file. On the other hand, that photo is still holding up a lot better than I am. (Yep, that’s me and my trusty dog.)

The truth is, I lied: I can’t show you any images of Old Maine. They’re locked up in a medium I can’t easily access: Kodachrome slides. In fact, my entire life prior to 2001 (when I purchased my first digital camera) is more or less stacked in a cabinet in the living room. Yes, I can show them to my children by fishing the carousel projector out of the garage and pointing it at the kitchen wall, but they lose a lot in translation. Kodachrome was the gold standard for transparency film, but unless you have a modern-day Magic Lantern, a lot of that is lost.

Of course, our slides are stored in a dry, dark, temperature-controlled environment, in which Kodachrome is remarkably stable. Future archaeologists are free to reclaim them, if they get there before someone dumps them.

My photographic lock-box, a/k/a slide carousels.
My father took tens of thousands of photographs, starting with photos of his mother in their cold-water flat in depression-era Buffalo. He was a professional photographer during and after WWII. His plates languished in his darkroom until they were tossed out earlier this year. There went a tremendous bit of history and art, lost forever.

(Ironically, it was his paintings that have survived. It’s unequivocally true that painting is an obsolete medium, largely supplanted in our day-to-day existence by photography and to a lesser degree graphic design. But that actually elevates its importance. The same people who blithely toss out photo albums of Grandma’s wedding wouldn’t dare to dispose of a painting of Grandma, for example.)

My first digital camera—a Minolta Dimage 7—did not take particularly good pictures compared to the Canon EOS film camera and lenses I was abandoning. However, the marginal cost of gazillions of pictures was exactly nil, and the images were tremendously easy to store compared to their film predecessors.

In 2001, we still thought of photos in terms of printing. Our hard drives were lock-boxes out of which we had to coax images via blurry printers with unstable inks. A mere decade later, our primary platform for showing pictures is the internet. Today, physical photos have become lock-boxes of a different kind.

And within a few short years, the quality of digital cameras and digital printing had improved tremendously. Above see two prints. The one on the left was taken with a $200 pocket camera (a Canon PowerShot) and printed on a plastic banner in 2008 (it has subsequently been hung outside in all kinds of weather). The image is about 20X24.

The one on the right is an older photo, taken in 1981 with a 2.25x2.25 format Ciro-Flex twin lens reflex with Kodacolor film. That camera was, comparatively, a much higher-market item than the Canon, selling for about $110 in 1948. Of course, one telling difference is that a 33-year-old camera wasn’t completely obsolete then. With film photography, as long as you could figure out the exposure and the lenses and back were intact, you were good to go, whereas I’ve replaced my digital cameras on average about every three years.

The photo of Antietam on the left is by me. The one on the right is by Matthew Brady, of course. It took a fraction of the time for me to find these two images on my server and on the internet than it took me to find the hard copies of the photos above.
Last summer I spent a few hours at Antietam. I am familiar with this photo by Matthew Brady; I of course took a corresponding photo of it myself. But how was I familiar with that photo? Not from the bound copy of “The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes” that sat on a shelf in our home when I was growing up—it was too valuable for children to touch. I’d seen the pictures online, of course.

One of my favorite of my own works has been a day-to-day account of the replacement of my local grocery store with a new, contemporary version—a two-year project that isn’t yet finished. I publish it on Facebook, of course, because there it gets a larger viewership than it would in any gallery. (You can see it here.)

I’m mercifully free of the need to monetize my every transaction, which makes it possible for me to exploit and enjoy the open-source world of the internet. But truthfully I’m as baffled about where it’s going next as I was about where digital photography was leading us. I hope my art stands a better chance of surviving than did my father’s, but who knows?

1 comment:

Ron Andrews said...

I am convinced that in the 22nd century historians will look back on the first 2 decades of the 21st century as the lost period for family photos. The image archivists at the Eastman House will tell you that ALL collections of digital images that are not actively managed will eventually be lost. The only family photos that will survive are the hard copy prints on good quality materials. Physical photographs don't always survive as you have found, but they stand a better chance than digital images. The Albert Stone Collection (14,000 glass plate negatives showing life in Rochester 100 years ago) was nearly discarded three times before it was properly archived.

My recommendation to everyone who cares about their personal photographs is to make sure that all of the keepers are printed on good quality materials. Having said that, I have to admit that I am way behind in dealing with my own photos. I have effective backups of my digital photos that will last for as long as I'm conscious. I have a few landscape photos that I contributed to Google Earth that will last as long as Google wants them. A book was cheaper than getting enlargements of all of my Rochester waterfall pictures. (Link: