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Archive for August 3rd, 2007

Losing our memories and our past because of digital photography

Posted by E on August 3, 2007


I own a couple of digital cameras and use them at every opportunity. A camera phone too, but I don’t take too it seriously.

Unlike a lot of people I know, I try as much as I can to print out my photos – and when there are special occasions, I create beautiful photo books that everyone praises and wows over. (Incidentally, the best software/photo book providers I have found for myself are MyPublisher and Shutterfly – the first is really good but very complicated; the latter is a lot simpler to work with, and recently has also adopted full-bleed pages, which make it serious competition to MyPublisher).

But photo books printed on acid-free paper cost money. Sometimes a lot of money when you’re doing a book of every trip or major occasion. And how often do you actually get all your digital photos printed out, anyway?

Maybe you will sift through and print the best ones (in your opinion) rather than everything, to save on ink cartriges and cost of photo paper. After all, that is why we all switched to digital photography, right? So we wouldn’t have to go to the trouble and expense of having to take our film rolls to the lab, pay a processing fee, wait an hour or a few days, and discover that out of 22 pictures, only half came out properly – well-lit, positioned, and where you actually were not yawning, blinking, or yelling at someone to come into the shot.

Pre-screening what you print is indeed the luxury of digital photography. You become the editor, selectively deciding which memories will remain, and which .jpgs will be zapped at the click of a button. The process reminds me of my writing process – and how often I will get ready to put away a piece that I didn’t think was appealing or particularly good, when someone will grab it, read it, and go on about how it “speaks” to them. These occasions taught me a lot about being careful not to edit too much, not to “zap” away what others may see as a treasured item.

I recently came across an article that made an intriguing assertion about digital photography – that it is creating a hole in our memories.

Joanna Wane wrote: “Slipping into the past used to be a magical journey through the cobwebs and mothballs in grandma’s basement…boxes of old photographs and family albums that reached back in time to another world…Even if the pictures of long-lost relatives and distant childhood were faded or torn, beautiful new prints could be taken from negatives often decades old…For the millennium generation… they’ll revisit the past by flicking through digital images on computer – if any survive.

Concern is being raised that our pictorial history is at risk. Few of the images taken on digital cameras are ever printed out, which means many are permanently lost when the file is deleted or damaged.

At the professional level, the more critical problem is digital storage. The fear is that as technology evolves, any storage medium in use today will eventually become obsolete and the material it holds lost to future generations…few are thinking much beyond immediate use. ”

Jim McGee, a US photographer and publisher of online Vivid Light Photography Magazine recently highlighted the plight of a reader who lost four years’ worth of images when his hard drive crashed and a new computer wouldn’t read his back-up CDs.

“The digital era is a threat to memories”, wrote Lorna Edwards of The Photographic Council of Australia (PICA). “Historical records as well as family albums may suffer, with less than 20 per cent of pictures making it into print.

But instead of printing pictures when memory cards fill up, most digital camera owners store them on hard drives, which are at risk of being lost in computer crashes or virus attacks, or may not be printable in years to come due to technological changes.
Those photographs that are printed at home are often not on photographic-quality paper and are therefore destined to fade.”

“The tragedy is we may well look back on this period as a time when very few photographs were printed.”

Douglas Rushkoff wonders in Photographs and Memories that “our evolution from digital cameras to camera phones” endangers “the way in which we relate to images, the memories they evoke, and perhaps even history itself.”

Having gone all the way from analog photography to the digital photo era (and he feels to have lost the quality in his photographs, the value, the memory and the meaning) he wonders “instead of elevating the events in our lives to ´memories` as we did in the Kodak era, we are simply grabbing some visual data points or a momentary sensation. The intentionality is gone. And unless the image is spectacular (not in execution, but in its content) we’ll trash it without printing. Who can be bothered filing all those little jpegs?”

He concludes: “As photography becomes less time-consuming, less crafted, less intentional, and less expressed through physically realized artifacts, it will lose its ability to elevate the moments and subjects its captures. Just as monarchs established their nobility through time-consuming portraiture (for which they, themselves, were required to sit), people with film cameras could sanctify their loved ones, and – perhaps more importantly – measure and even control the passage of time by subjecting the moment to a carefully organized and meticulously processed exposure.

The immense popularity of the cameraphone may ultimately signal – like the ascendance of reality TV – a victory of content over art, or message over medium. Sure, we’ll get a whole lot more well-documented car crashes. But our experience of photography may be reduced from moments of inspired awe to ephemeral voyeuristic gaping.”

What will happen to our JPEGs and TIFFs in the future? Will they physically survive? How long will these digital file standards exist? The life cycle of image file formats is limited in time, digital storage devices pass off, some people even lose many years’ worth of memories when hard drives crash, are stolen, or malfunction.

We must take action today.

We can still save our memories – there is still time – but we have to create hard copies, we have to print good quality photos as much as possible, we have to make that effort. Or there will be little to share with the generations to come.


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