Thursday, July 21, 2011

History in Photographs

Ken Burns is recognized as one of the great documentary filmmakers of this century. With works like “Baseball”, “The Civil War” and soon to be released, “Prohibition” his images weave an intricate historical narrative.

An interesting thing about film making, though; it generally involves moving images. Yet Burns’ works contain almost exclusively fixed images; photographs, illustrations and paintings. Most film editing software ( I use Adobe Premiere Pro) allow the editor to animate fixed images, zooming, scaling, shifting axis. This lends a bit more interest to a fixed image and allows the viewer to focus on the scene slightly longer.

An interesting fact is that much of what we know about the Civil War is due to the vast archives of physical images. Many are glass plates, some film on paper. Though celluloid degrades over time, glass plate images are resilient and can last for centuries. With digital technology these can be enhanced through color correction, balance and blemish removal.

Film and film processing is becoming rare, replaced largely by digital camera technology. My wife, who used to develop her own black-and-white film, finally abandoned her 35mm SLR camera and has gone completely the digital route. But the adoption of new technology has now presented us with a new problem – long-term storage and retrieval.

We began collecting digital images with our earliest computers, initially saved to floppy disks, then hard drives. Today in some cases a single photo image file is larger than the entire 20mb hard drive of my first computer! I remember at the time the computer salesman assured me I would “never fill up that hard drive”.

But the insatiable storage demands of data storage, including photographic images, has required me to seek ever larger capacity devices over time. I’ve gone through “Zip” drives, then larger “Jaz” drives. When that became inadequate I began filling up CD’s then larger capacity DVDs; eventually turning to assorted “Tape” drives. As it stands now, much of what I have stored digitally resides on essentially “obsolete” storage devices.

Then there comes that horrible day when the computer fails to fire up. Hard drives have a finite life span, all will eventually fail. My daughter and her husband lost a number of priceless family photos when their notebook PC died. There were no copies, no duplicates.

Of course many today share photographs through uploading them to web archives such as “Shutterfly”, “Flickr” or “Photobucket”. But many online photo hosting services have gone bankrupt and disappeared from the web… along with them your collection of family photos. Will these online resources enjoy the same century long services as have the glass plates and photo paper images from the battle of Gettysburg? Will those photos of your child’s 4 year old birthday party survive somewhere over the next 100 years generations yet unborn to admire?

It’s an interesting question to picture.

Photo above: George Washington Cole, my great great grandfather. Died at the Battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi, 1863

22 comments:

OnsenZen said...

I like the HP line, "Don't let your kids grow up to be jpgs." Truly if you have precious photos that you want to save for next generations you should have them printed on high quality photo papers. That's why I use and sell Creative Memories products to preserve my photo collection for generations to come. Telling the story behind the photos is also important; photos of unknown people are likely to be tossed when no one remembers who they were, but cherished if you know it is your great-great-great-grand-someone.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Zen I am so glad you are recovering your Dad's dog-eared photos from being propped up all over the house and getting them into albums that won't degrade them.

adrielleroyale said...

Yes, that is a dilemma, especially for photo lovers like myself! I have been wondering what in the world I will do when my laptop dies... I don't want to think about it, honestly :( I can just bury my head in the sand, right? ;)

Kay Dennison said...

I am trying to get better about using flash drives.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Adrielle If the only copy of your photos are on your laptop you are indeed tempting fate. Copy them someplace... and soon!

Kay I have already lost one thumb drive... their size makes them convenient, but also easy to lose.

Jayne said...

I thought that was a photo of John Brown at the top of this piece, but the man's too young, it seems.

Anyway, Robert, this post makes me anxious. Anxious because I know I don't back-up and save like I should. I work off of five year old Dell laptop that has very little space left on it. So, I'm anxious, but I'm glad to be reading this because it's another reminder that I need to get my act together.

Photos from the last five years on this old laptop. But what to do! I don't trust the online archives. And like you mentioned, technology gets old quick. Everything needs to be converted eventually.

I'm beginning to think I should just have all my photos printed and store them the old fashioned way??

Robert the Skeptic said...

Jayne Printing them on good paper with ink that is designed to last a long time without fading is the best remedy. It is also important what kind of photo books you store them in, the ones with the "sticking" backing actually leeches into the paper and ruins the photos.

Nancy has removed some of the photos damaged by cheap photo books, scanned, color corrected and reprinted some of the worst ones.

As far as digital storage, even CD's have a finite life span, only a few decades then they become brittle and can break in high speed drives. This is going to be a problem for long term image storage.

Cognitive Dissenter said...

My hard drive died a few months ago. Fortunately I had just done a backup on my external hard drive. Saved my bacon.

billy pilgrim said...

when i dig out the old photos of my kids and compare them to the digital ones on my computer the old ones almost seem magical. there's just something about being able to hold the photo in my hands.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dissenter Good plan we do that... Though I have had external drives die as well.

Billy True, and you can easily show it to people... without requiring them to sit in front of your computer, or gather around you I-pad, or ...

Stinkypaw said...

Wow, your great great grand pa was a good looking man!

One of the things I dislike about all the digital photos/albums, is the fact that most of us don't print pict. anymore and rarely look back at our 'virtual albums' - I love to look at pict. even if most of them (at least the last 10 years) are now on a hard drive somewhere...

DJan said...

I have my most important ones backed up in the cloud, off site, plus on external hard drives as well. I hope that the problem will be remedied by some enterprising young geeks before long... :-)

Robert the Skeptic said...

Stinkypaw Yes well if you saw a previous post of two you would see that good looks apparently run in the family!

That's just it, it's not convenient to look at "virtual" albums because you need an electronic device to do so. A standard photo album requires no electricity.

DJan Yes many people have that strategy. But will your pictures survive just as long as you think you need them or for decades? Who can see your pictures if you are not there to access your cloud account or tell others how to. I think we are trading convenience for lack of permanence.

alwaysinthebackrow said...

I've been thinking this over for quite a while now. We tend to take a lot more photos now that they are digital. To print them would be a large time/money commitment. But I know that they are not safely stored. I have an off=site storage deal, but I miss the photos, too.

Anyone who can solve this whole problem will be the next gazillionaire. Wish I could.

secret agent woman said...

I use on-line storage, plus my computer, plus a back-up hard drive. But I'm thinking about doing one of those blog-to-book printing deal since many of my photos are on my blog.

Robert the Skeptic said...

BackRow Selecting the best of your best, printing them and putting them in a photo-safe book is a great way to go.

SecretAgent As I responded to BackRow above, printing them to a book is a good strategy for long-term storage.

Dawn @Lighten Up! said...

Love the photo of your Great Grandfather! Fascinating
Yep, I have the same issue...where to store? At least I am pretty good about storing, even if only on DVD.
BTW, thanks for reminding me, getting a full hard drive....

alwaysinthebackrow said...

Going back to this question of storage, I found "Archival" discs to store photos. Any info/opinion on those?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Dawn That's the scary thing, DVD's have a relatively short shelf life, and a hard drive even less. We tend to think short-term, but if we want our photos to stand the test of time, a more durable strategy is needed.

BackRow I have no experience with "Archival" media. But the question that comes to my mind is, will there be hardware 50 years from now that will/can read it? Will DVD media go the way of the floppy drive?

Right now many of the portable devices have NO drive whatsoever and the device batteries will eventually degrade to where they are no longer chargeable (and they don't appear to be replaceable). The only in/output is through wireless or USB. This is the key point I was trying to make, many of the "devices" I have used to store data are obsolete! If I even can connect them to a computer, will there be drivers compatible with the operating system? Will it work 50+ years from now?

Marylinn Kelly said...

As one who hasn't even begun to tackle any of this, I will comment on how wonderful it is to have the photo of your (I agree, quite good looking) ancestor. I just finished Maira Kalman's AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS which includes photos of the founding father's (or spouses) who lived to be photographed. Even though it is an explainable process of light and chemicals, it still has an aura of magic, when we can look into the past, as Ken Burns does. And I even love other people's snapshots from the 50s and earlier. I will have to think how to define the undefinable quality that separates the digital from its predecessors.

KleinsteMotte said...

What an interesting question. I wonder if a newer technology will come along and harvest what's on those old things? Today we can put negatives and slides onto disks or memory sticks.
By the way didn't they save the hard drives that contained the photos?
How useful will sharing be in the future?

Jerry said...

This problem has been vexing me for some time. I have tons of digitized family pictures, as do each of my family members. I am struggling with selected a decent cloud storage area is family access only. That alone with secondary drive back-up is the best I can come up with. I do have printed those 'special' photos.

We are all in deep doo-doo if a magnetic pulse comes our way. Yeah, I know...storing photos would be the least of our problems.