150 Years of Visual Democracy may be Coming to an End.

What glimpses into the late twentieth century will survive?

Since paper photographs became affordable in the 1860’s we have been supplied with a wealth of images of folk, remarkable and unremarkable, and a supply of views of day-to-day life. Of course, historians and journalists might argue that is never quite the right particular photograph available when you need it, but in reality never has so much been documented to such an extent, by so many.

Those of us who work with historic images like to complain about our ancestors most of whom seem had a mighty aversion to labelling snaps. If only they had given us a clue as to who, when and where! However, archivists are not totally lacking in tools. Old photographs are physical entitites. Photographic technique, size of the print, and membership in a body of related materials (“context”) are all of help in identification, not to mention history of ownership (“provenance”). So the farmer’s wife may have known nothing about durability of her photograph, or of the tapes, glues, mounts and fingers with which it would have contact, but despite this, something which we can use remains.

Today’s amateur shutterbugs are now almost completely converted to digital photography. They are confused, challenged and seduced by a range of options for storing pictures. Many of the options use the words “archive” or “archival”. The word suggests survival for the future. The truth is that most early 21st century processes and products are so new that we do not know if or how they will endure.

Even if the best case is true, and floppy disks, cd-roms, hard drives and memory devices do not deteriorate, will the hardware and software still be around to read them in fifty years, or will data retrieval be the domain of specialists?

Printing out is not the answer either, as home printing devices produce snapshots that are light sensitive, or with a tendency to become sticky or powdery.

These scary thoughts have prompted exploration of other possibilities. One idea which has gained in popularity is to store digital images far away, on a site run by a reputable company. The photographer is supposed to have complete access and to relax, assured that the visual information is ultimately safe. The picture archive is responsible for providing the tools to enable translation from one format to another, offering the best of new formats to replace obsolete ones.

Experienced photograph archivists worry about usefulness of these photo banks to posterity. Amateur photographers who label their work are rare. Uploaded photographs frequently are accompanied by very little data. At least one firm has suggested a software to record the GPS locator and time taken as part of the digital image, as well as the date. I suppose that this might help, but it will still not tell us that the occasion was the Millenneum Parade and that the person in costume is cousin Susie.

Off-site photograph banks which were initially enthusiastic about playing a role in historical preservation are now getting cold feet as the size of memory resource which must be offered to clients for free (or for very little) becomes apparent. The most recent cause celebre was the death of AOL Pictures Service on January 8th, 2009. AOL turned the function over to a commercial partner, PhotoWorks, and clients are asked to register for a PhotoWorks account by June 30th, 2009, in order to continue to access their images.

The idea that the photograph bank would one day be a resource for millions of wonderful images is revealed as not credible. The need to clear intellectual property considerations (copyright) requires knowledge about the date of creation. Even setting copyright aside, there is the need to know just what the subject matter of the image might be and cryptic codes don’t explain. Then there is the matter of retrieval. In order to make the pictures useful, people have to be able to search the image bank. Unlike genuine archives, large commercial companies are not interested in the investment of manpower to carefully arrange and tag, image by image. The financial return for amateur photographs is just not juicy enough. As the size of the photograph bank grows, private interests sometimes group the images in virtual boxes under themes: “ships”, “lighthouses”, “sailors”, leaving the researchers to hunt for themselves through the boxes.

There is no doubt that carefully tended digital banks of commercial images, such as those maintained by Associated Press, have a good chance of surviving a long time. The AP image bank contains celebrities, stirring events and evocative views taken mostly by skilled professionals. AP presently charges $40 for an 8″ x 10″ reproduction for personal enjoyment and more than three times that for commercial use. The revenue potential alone of these top end photographs would be an indicator for preservation.

The question is how much about the grassroots will have the same privilege. Will the snapshots of the opening ceremony at the new public school be available in one hundred years? Will future researchers be able to find photographs of small-town mayors and returning veterans? While we would probably all agree that it is unnecessary to keep an image of every Hallowe’en costume worn by every Canadian child, it is troubling to think that very little of our day-to-day lives and times may survive.


Filed under Archives, History, Ontario, Material culture, Photography

3 responses to “150 Years of Visual Democracy may be Coming to an End.

  1. I am currently putting my faith in flickr, creative commons and the willingnes of users of the interent to offer information for free that has powered wikipedia, open source software and similar efforts such as the origins of imdb.com.

    Of course I have to pay to access my PRO accountand its longer term accessibilty may be something my estate will have to deal with. But I would hope that the extent of the information I have provided and the tags which I – and many visitors – have added to these images mean that mean that it has already proved its use as a store of information in image form.

    I also note that some flickr users are almost archival bloggers in that they delight in posting images of recent history with sometimes long and detailed notes. Two English examples are http://www.flickr.com/photos/fray_bentos/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/8050359@N07/

  2. Robert Hammond

    The post raises a very good question. Is this perhaps the new frontier for local Archives? If a person walks into a local museum or archives with an album of family photos, it is likely their donation would be welcomed. Is it any different for digital photographs?
    The technology to store and display digital photos, with GPS, dates and other keyword information is very cheap and accessible now. Should the organizations that operate archives and collect for them be looking at this the immediate future? Starting early would probably be easier than trying to catch up to the wave.

    A locally based collection could focus on just collecting images from around them.

  3. newzeum

    (Feb. 21, 2009) Gerry Boyce also wrote:
    1. An excellent article that raises troubling questions. The Hastings County Historical Society recently received more than a million negatives (c.1950-2001) from the Belleville Intelligencer newspaper. It’s moving to a new location and the company generously donated the negatives, as well as a large number of prints.
    2. It’s possible to use the negatives to make prints for future display and reference use. However, copies from current papers (with their digital images) are difficult to obtain.
    3. Our present problem is how to obtain funds to store the negatives so that they will be well preserved.

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