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.
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?