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Friday, 6 January 2017

The cost to history of digital photography


How an old photo led to my writing a book, but how many  family photographs will survive our digital age?

Some years ago, during a visit I made to my mother in Melbourne, Australia, we found a box of old photographs on top of a wardrobe. It was a goldmine of family memories, but not without its problems. The colour prints were mostly faded, and while the black-and-white and sepia photos were generally in good condition, almost none bore any identification.

We spent hours working our way through the photographs, using a soft pencil to write names, and where possible, locations and approximate dates on the back of each one.

As we worked our way through the collection, my eye was caught by a family group photograph taken in a studio in Melbourne in 1914 around the time the First World War was getting underway. The group included a woman I had never seen before.

My mother, who has since died, identified the woman as my Great Aunt Florence “Florrie” Cox, and under my cross-examination, she very reluctantly revealed that Florrie had been a Baptist missionary in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) and had innocently been caught up in a terrible scandal that had shamed the family in Melbourne.

I had originally thought this would be a marginal family history episode, but the more I learned the more I realised that I had a book in the making. This was published as God’s Triangle. Had my mother not had such a clear long-term memory, that old photograph would not have been identified and the fascinating and touching story of God’s Triangle would have remained untold.

There was a time, not that many decades ago, when taking a photograph was an event from which the results were treasured. Families would have a Kodak Box Brownie or maybe, as I did, a clunky East German Praktica 35mm. Most of the photos would be in black-and-white or sepia, although with the growth of 35mm cameras, a treat would be to buy a roll of Kodachrome colour transparency film.

Special events, such as weddings and the birth of a child in the family, would occasion the services of a professional photographer or perhaps a visit to a photographic studio with its massive lights and camera. The photographs from these sessions were archival quality and became proud possessions to be passed on from generation to generation.

The rot began to set in when cheap cameras, 35mm colour print film and one-hour processing began to dominate the market in the 1970s and 1980s. Colour photographs became the norm and began to lose their value as a means of permanently recording our lives pictorially.

Extra prints were sometimes ordered for friends, then the negatives would probably be binned. Worse – and this is something few people realised – these colour prints were prone to discolouring and fading and had little or no long-term archival quality.

It is safe to estimate that billions of digital photographs are now taken around the world each day, the majority of them on smart phones, but how many will survive to take their place in a family’s historical record? Almost none.

Some of these photographic efforts end up being emailed to friends and family, or are posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr and other social media outlets, but are very rarely turned into prints that can be held in the hand and admired, or put in a frame or even a photographic album.

The irony is that the technical quality of the pictures taken on digital cameras and smart phones is exceptionally high, but not by the time they are transferred to the social media. They may look good on a computer screen, but they can’t be printed in good quality.

From time to time, I get interesting family photographs emailed to me, or they are posted on Facebook, and I ask for high-definition copies so that I can produce good quality prints and add them to my family history archive. I rarely get them, either because they have been deleted, or the photographers can’t figure out how to process them in top quality.

A friend of mine fires off the camera in his iPhone at every opportunity, but when I ask him what happens to all the pictures, the short answer is that they are mostly lost whenever he upgrades his mobile phone or computer, something that he does quite frequently.

This takes me onto another bugbear: identification of photographs. Almost since photography was popularised by the likes of Fox Talbot and George Eastman, there has been a failure to identify the who, the where and the when on a photograph.

It is sometimes a tedious task, but all my saved photographs are identified, usually with a caption added when I process them through my Photoshop, or similar, software. This often prompted ridicule on the part of my family and friends, but I am delighted to report that I am gradually winning them over. 

Initially, when I showed a photo with a name, location and date on it, I would be told “But we know all that!” My answer is “Well, you know that now, but I bet you won’t remember the date in a matter of months. You will be a bit hazy about the location in a few years, and a few years after that you won’t be entirely sure who all the people are. This has proved to be true in many cases.

While I fear for the future of our family photographic history, new and cheap printing opportunities have emerged in recent years as a benefit of digitisation. It is now possible with fairly basic computer skills to design a photobook that can be printed by a commercial company for as little as £10, although £40 is a reasonable expectation for larger books with hard covers.

Photobooks have an advantage over the old photographic albums in that the photos do not become unstuck and fall out over time. So, while I fret that so much of our pictorial history is being lost, never to be recovered, it is not all depressing news.

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