Digital Dark Age?

Google “digital dark age” and you’ll find a number of sorrowful news items about how, thanks to digital photography, there’s going to be a big blank spot in our history. The idea goes something like this.

Everybody’s using digital cameras. They are printing on inkjet paper that doesn’t last very long. They are deleting photos that aren’t quite good enough. They are Photoshopping photos, robbing us of the real image. They are burning images to CDs that won’t last long, or that they won’t take care of, or that won’t be readable in ten years. They are saving in file formats that may not exist, or may be changed, or may be unreadable by future software. They may use software (or their cameras may save in raw file formats) that can’t be used on operating systems ten years from now.

You know what I call that?


Ever bought a new computer? Ever left anything behind on the old one, just said “oh I don’t need that” or “those files aren’t worth retrieving” or “these 5.25″ floppy disks don’t have anything I want?” That’s called editing.

Did you save your prints in a shoebox? Did you ever file the negatives of those photos? Did you put those photos in those magnetic albums that you can’t get the prints out of now? Did you ever think about archival storage?

Have any color negatives? If they’re ten years old, they’ve probably faded some. Today’s inkjet papers (if you buy the good stuff and use the good inks) will last longer than a color print from the minilab. Because some colors in color prints fade faster than others, a color paper’s lifespan is when one color has faded enough that the picture’s color is out of balance.

Folks like to say that black and white prints are best because look how long they’ve lasted. I can tell you for certain that those prints you see today don’t look as they did 50 years ago. If you developed your prints like Ansel Adams, maybe, but B&W prints fade due to bad processing (chemicals not washed out), bad environment (the prints suck in the chemicals from the air, causing the paper to turn brown or the silver to fade or even tarnish), even bad framing (using non-archival mats that “burn” the print edge with a stain). Just because they still exist doesn’t mean they’re any more archival.

If you care about your photos, you will do what’s necessary to keep them around. I’ve visited lots of people in my work for Goldenseal, asking to borrow old photos for publication, and many people just say they don’t have them anymore. They were lent, lost, cut up for school projects. Some said they just didn’t take many photos. Many were terribly faded, bent, torn.

And yet somehow we still have a lot of photos from the early part of the 20th century. The middle part, the color era, kind of sucks because we not only had ephemeral color prints, we also had crappy cameras: Polaroid, Instamatic 126, Instamatic 110, Disc cameras. It seemed everytime Kodak improved its films it made a new, smaller crappy camera to hold the film. We got satin and silk prints that did nothing to improve the resolution. We have millions of photos from this era, but I question whether they are worth keeping.

The last statistic I saw, pre-digital, was that 6 billion photos were shot and processed worldwide in a year. How many of those are worth keeping? How many do you WANT to keep? How many can we afford to keep and archive? Now imagine that translated to digital, where the only cost is hard drive space. How many pictures can we afford to keep? Only the ones we think, in the end, are worth th effort. Just as it has always been.

Don’t worry, there’s no digital dark age. If we shoot ten times as many photos as we did half a century ago, but we preserve only one-tenth of what we kept before, we’re still even on the actual numbers, and I suspect we’ll have a lot more than that. Ignore the doomsayers. Take photos, enjoy them, and do what you can to keep track of them. But don’t let the work get in the way of the fun.

Hey, that wasn’t so depressing!

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"The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own." - Susan Sontag, On Photography
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