Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Wheelie-Bin of History

Library picture from an original transparency, posed by a model (1990s)

A recent clear-out of my office has revealed half-forgotten relics charting the history of technological change that has transformed photographic publishing in the 20 years since I first set up my current workspace. Quite a few have survived the early spring clean: the shelves stacked with boxes of black and white contact sheets (necessary for locating valued old negatives), 200 boxes of 10”x8” prints (unnecessary, but they took so much time to make!), my one-time darkroom through a door at the far end (in which an enlarger still has pride of place, but the blackout is long gone), two or three film cameras I couldn't bring myself to part with, and a large cardboard box containing thousands of slides returned from a now defunct picture library.
But much has been consigned to the recycling wheelie-bin, all redolent of a very different era: price lists from courier companies and colour processing labs, Kodak data sheets, a variety out-of-date printed directories, records of outgoing prints and original transparencies, and polite letters from picture researchers happy to pay NUJ recommended rates. A pile of CDs, used to distribute library pictures to publishers in the early years of digitisation, before photo library websites became commonplace, met a more violent and less ecological end: I smashed them with a hammer and sent them for land-fill. Regrettable but necessary.

It was the redundant digital hardware that I found most alarming.  The clear-out was prompted by the arrival of faster and more capacious storage and a new computer requiring more desk space. Three new 4TB drives have replaced a collection of 15 smaller ones - some as small as 80GB. The redundant discs have now joined the enlarger in my redundant darkroom.

Yet none of my IT equipment has worn out - almost all of it looks as good as it did when I first bought it. It's just become obsolete: too slow, too small, or no longer upgradable to the latest OS. My eight-year-old Mac Pro looks immaculate, but can't run the current version of Lightroom or Final Cut Pro, and its stylish carcase under my desk provokes some uneasy thoughts.

The care of film negatives and transparencies was always an issue for analogue photographers (the only sort there were until not very long ago). Unlike digital images, they represent the only 'original' of each picture, vulnerable to fire, flooding and various other potential disasters. Digital files, on the other hand, can be copied ad infinitum without losing quality. If you're into immortality, they seem a much better bet. But what if they too become obsolete? Negatives are very old technology, but they are still accessible. They can even be seen with the naked eye. What if the software that reads your digital files is no longer available? Or you can't afford a new computer, or your annual subscription to Adobe's Creative Cloud? Or someone has hacked their servers and disabled the activation on every copy of Photoshop ever sold? Or a solar storm wipes every hard disc in the known universe? 

Now we are all vulnerable to an instant clear-out. And a wheelie-bin won't be necessary.