Thoughts on Tomorrow's Yesterday / by Edward Crim

 35mm, 120 and 4x5 negatives - tangible images all!

35mm, 120 and 4x5 negatives - tangible images all!

It was in the summer of 1999, when I visited my Grandmother, a little lady living in the mountains of Virginia, where she was born and had borne her own children. I was collecting and organizing family photos and genealogical information at the time and wanted to see what I could find out from her.

“Grandma,” I asked, “do you have any old negatives?”

“Well,” she replied, pausing in her characteristic way, “I reckon I do.”

She shuffled over to a cabinet in the corner of the dining room, opened one of its doors and pulled out a shoebox, which she then brought to the table in the center of the room.

I reached out eagerly, took the box and began to explore its contents. The negatives were still in the paper sleeves and envelopes they had been put into by the processing labs; not a recommended way of storing film, but better than nothing. I dug through the box slowly, pulling out the negatives one at a time and holding them up to the window to see them more clearly. There were photographs of my grandfather and uncles from the 1950’s and 60’s, including some of them posing beside a drilling rig they had used to drill wells for others in the remote hills of Virginia and West Virginia. There were negatives of my father and mother on one of their visits to the old house from 1949 through the early 60's. The real treasures, though, were toward the bottom; images of my grandmother as a 15 year old, the year she married my grandfather. The grand prize was the picture of my beaming grandfather holding my six month-old mother in the crook of his arm, taken in the summer of 1927.

For 72 years that negative lay in a cardboard box, waiting, just waiting, for me to discover it and make prints for my extended family. The fact that it survived intact in such a humid environment in a home without air conditioning and no special measures taken to protect the negatives is testimony to the durability and long-term value of film. The same cannot be truthfully said of digital images.

Digital images, for a number of reasons, seem to be the very definition of the word ephemeral: short-lived. Digital photography became popular around the turn of the millennium. At that time I was managing a photo lab in St. Louis’ Central West End where we processed color and black & white film and slides, made custom prints and did a lot of digital scanning and printing to large format printers. I had already been in the world of digital images long enough to know just how fleeting they can be! I encouraged our customers who used digital cameras to make prints, as otherwise they would soon have nothing to show for their efforts.

Vint Cerf, a VP at Google and a true internet pioneer, warned in a recent speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California, that our century may well be descending into “an information black hole”. His worry, much like mine, is that we are setting the stage for a digital dark age, an age that future generations will know little of, due to a lack of historical artifacts, including letters, papers, and photographs. Why? There are several reasons, but the essence of the argument is the Achilles’ heel of digital information; its ephemerality. Here are the reasons:

Digital information is encoded and requires interpreting hardware and software. All of these things exist today, but recent experience clearly demonstrates this will not always be the case. For instance, do you have a computer that will read a 5.25 inch floppy disk? How about the software to read a WordPerfect file? Could you decode data from a TRS-80 computer? All of these things were in wide spread use in the 1990’s when I first awakened to the dangers of digital photography, but are hard to find now.

Digital media is fragile and easily damaged. Hard drives crash. Optical media such as CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs fade, delaminate, get scratched, and are subject to manufacturing defects that can render them unreadable. Flash memory cards and USB drives can also fail, corrupting your data and rendering images un-viewable. It’s also easy to break some memory cards, particularly the small SD and minuscule Micro SD cards.

Cloud storage offers off-site storage of your images, but is expensive and subject not only to change in terms of service, security issues and quality problems (due to compression of your files by the storage provider), but also to the provider going out of business. Cloud services can also fail. Google, Twitter and Adobe have all suffered service outages on their cloud services, but the most spectacular failure of a cloud service was that of the Microsoft/Danger Sidekick cloud-based phone. On October 2, 2009, the service suffered an outage that dropped service to all of their 2 million T-Mobile users for about 4 days. When service was finally restored, however, it was discovered that users had lost their contacts, calendars, photos, e-mails, texts, and any other personal information they had on their phones. Nine days after the initial problem manifested itself, Microsoft announced they were unable to restore users’ data and that it was irretrievably lost. It then also came out that Microsoft had, after purchasing the Danger Sidekick, stripped the company of its engineers; what had been hundreds “was cut down to a handful of people in Palo Alto managing some contractors in Romania, Ukraine, etc.” The issue was ultimately resolved when Microsoft, suddenly aware of the bad publicity they were getting, sent in an army of software engineers and was able to restore the majority of data that had been lost. If, however, you were a part of the minority that lost everything, the fact that most of the missing data had been restored would have been of little consolation.

There you have it, folks; dangers everywhere for your friendly neighborhood digital files. Obsolescence, hard drive crashes, bad optical media, broken SD cards, corrupt politicians, I mean files, and expensive on-line services that just may not work when you need them. What’s a mother to do?

You need an active plan. Redundancy is key to preserving your digital data. You need to do what NASA* does; have a 3-stage redundancy by using a primary system, secondary system, and tertiary system. Keep your important files on a RAID 1 drive as your primary system. Back-up that drive to a cloud service or NAS or second RAID 1 drive for your secondary system. And most important of all…

Make Prints! Your tertiary system should be something you can hold in your hand and gaze at by candlelight. A print answers all of the issues associated with digital data, as it is tangible (hold it in your hands, baby), permanent (till death do you part), requires no decoding device (other than your brain, which can usually do the trick) and is immune to crashes, manufacturers’ defects and fading (mostly). A 4x6 print costs very little, and if it is a good one (printed not at some discount place but a real photo lab, such as Diversified Lab), brings a lot of viewing pleasure today, tomorrow, and on through the years. Be sure to keep them in one of the many archival photo albums available at your favorite camera store or hobby shop.

Create Photo Books! A step beyond 4x6 prints in a slip-in album are the coffee-table style photo books you can create from Adobe Lightroom, and from various on-line services (Shutterfly has the best on-line creation tool). Photo books are a lasting, universally accessible and beautiful treasure that you will enjoy for years to come. They are also easy to create, can include text and allow the printing of multiple copies so your friends and family can share the fun (heck, even your enemies could profit from some of your great photos)!

Just remember, folks, the one thing that is certain about digital photographs is, there is a great deal of uncertainty. Don’t let yourself be robbed of your family treasures, your memories, your past. Take action now, spend a bit of time and money and get your images tucked into some safe places.

- Edward Crim

*The rocket folks, not the ones that are keeping track of your clandestine affairs