What about preservation?

February 21, 2006

I really like Flickr.

The Getty Museum

I have an account, admittedly with very little, if any, substance (cats, some British Columbia and Oregon Coast photos) but I’ve connected with a group in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama that has done a great job with posting some incredible images of downtown buildings. My kind of photography–architectural, landscapes…capturing the essence, if you will, of the “place” one is photographing.

I’m an amateur’s amateur photographer. The photographs I have on my walls (and they are covered with photos) are print photographs. And I like that. Except, of course, to post them on Flickr I need to not only scan them into my computer but it would be nice to have a good editing program such as Photoshop to “tidy them up” a bit. That’s the preservation part and, albeit, the integrity aspect, as well. I know a little bit about the history of early photography and I know the greats such as Stieglitz, Adams, Steichen, all manipulated their images as they developed them. So, is there a difference in taking a digital photo or scanning a print and tweaking it in photoshop? Would that be considered the same type of artistic license that the noted photographers exercised in developing their prints in the darkroom? Probably. Is it what the photographer “sees” or is it what the phtographer shoots and the interpretation is left to the viewer to make? I think a bit of both but I think I lean toward the latter view.

How does this fall under the heading of preservation? What happens to those photos, the ones that are really well done (and I won’t include the myriad shots of my felines in this query). I assume the photographers are keeping copies, as I do, on CD/DVD and, possibly prints as well. But, one hundred years from now, if those images are not donated to an archive or if that archive decides to digitize each image to save time and space by scanning to certain specs (600 dpi TIFF, for example) and the original is lost, how can the future historian know what has been changed? How can they compare the original with the digitized image?

I don’t know. It is an issue that I think about these days as I apply for jobs in archives and special collections. Some are on the “digitize everything” train and others are not even going down that track. There is the issue of money, server space, the fact that many images are “born digital”. Indeed, most of the images I’ve shot are digital images–how many of the everyday images that will, in the futre, reflect this time and place in our history? These will be a document to this period of time and it may be lost or important ones may be lost. Of course, how many were lost in the past? My point is that there seems, due to the popularity of digital cameras, software and sites such as Flickr, that our time may miss a greater proportion than in the past.

There is, of course, always, the cost of maintaining such technology. Content management systems, staff and the addition of skilled metadata technicians mean that many small town historical societies will be left with prints. And, that may be a good thing in the long run.

I’ll be interested to hear how others are addressing this particular issue (photos are not as easily preserved as incunabula or 16th century books, well, at least in most cases). The book is a medium that, generally, was built to last (unless dropped in a bathtub or burned or disbound and razored, among many other hazards). For some reason, photos seems more ephemeral and thus, in need of more attention, at least as much as old and rare books.


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