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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Digital Permanence - Reminiscing the Fading

Paging through an old family album, someone who has grown up in the digital era will notice something that to many of us born pre-digital (if there is such a thing) is commonplace. The fading image. Yellowed images and hue shifts are usual amongst the dozens of kodak printed postcard sized images that adorn the large photo albums that mark the passage of time for a family. Now the passage of time seems to be marked by a 'timeline' that pops up on our social networks; viewed on a computer screen dispassionately rather than sitting together on a couch and reminiscing.

Digital imagery has brought about a permanence to the photographed image that was never possible before. Images, regardless of their providence, faded. Indeed, as Susan Sontag points out in the first chapter of her book,'On Photography', the fact that images fade makes them more valuable, both intrinsically as an object as well as a mnemonic. Faded images imply the passage of time. They are valuable as historical objects and have the ability to create sentiment in the people that view them. What does this mean of images that do not fade?

An old photograph c1948 of my father's family. Family albums of slowly fading images are treasured heirlooms. Will our images from social media ever be treasured or heirlooms?

The only way a digital image can be destroyed is by physically deleting it. This isn't to say that accidents don't occur to digital images. In the same way that a burst geyser over a storage room can destroy a lifetime of negatives, so too can it destroy a bank of hard drives housing the same span of years in digital images. The core difference though is that the digital images, if looked after, backed up and duplicated, will look no different 30 years down the line as from the day they were created. Not so with traditional chemical based imagery. The old joke, ‘photographers don’t die, they just fade away’, may mean little to today’s breed of digital photographers, but it was a stark reminder to film photographers of the past their works were far from impermeable, let alone everlasting.

So it comes with a sense of irony that with the supposed immortal nature of digital images brings along with it an increasing devaluation of that same imagery. Millions of images are created on a daily basis through the use of a myriad number of cameras from full blown professional digital SLRs through the ubiquitous cell phone and of course the millions more of surveillance images that are created in the background without knowledge or official consent of those being photographed. There isn’t a second that goes by that images aren’t being created, and every…. single…. one of them is everlasting. 

Images are cheap now. Once upon a time you would keep your dud images simply because they cost you money. I still find it incredibly difficult to throw away a poor 4x5 transparency. That’s because that individual frame cost me on average US$12 to create. That doesn’t include the expense of the equipment or the time spent to go and shoot in the first place. It literally cost me US$12 a shot in film and processing. Because of this every image was carefully composed, waited for, agonised over and valued. Now, I can pick up any one of my digital cameras and shoot off a hundred frames and every single one of them is not only permanent (as long as I don’t press the delete button) but there’s a good chance - composition notwithstanding - that they are passable image quality as well for all but the most rigorous of applications.

What this means is that images have to be beyond perfect to have any value as images. Forget the intrinsic material value. That completely disappeared with the appearance of digital photography. That same implied artistic value in an image is also debatable. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and although it pains me to admit this, if said beholder thinks an image is worthless, then it is. At least in the days of the Daguerrotype there was a significant material value to the actual image that the client received at the end of a shoot. The fact that even the Daguerrotype faded over time created even more intrinsic value in the object itself - as an historical object.

Digital images are almost ahistorical due to their permanence. We look for historical clues with the subject depicted rather than the physical object that is the photograph. Looking at an old photograph, one shot on film and printed onto light sensitive paper and then carefully processed in chemical baths; we are able to discern age, and therefore historicity, in the object itself. Vintage photographs are a collector’s item now. Old family albums of our forebears are guarded heirlooms. Somehow I doubt that any of the images that we shoot on our digital devices are ever going to be collectibles.

As a professional photographer earning my living there is more at stake here than the sad reminiscing of a bygone era. It ….. with how we perceive and value imagery going forward. If we consider images as physical objects then the future of photography as a career or for making one’s living out of is dead. Yet imagery, despite being devalued across the board is extraordinarily important in our current information era. Images convey information and ideas in ways that previously we couldn’t even imagine. We are inundated with different images (yes everlasting images) literally on a minute by minute basis. A quick scroll through the a news site that I regularly read (the Mail and Guardian) showed me 12 individual photos as well as 2 different cartoons. Not all of these images were related to the content within the headlines, but were also click feed advertisements. Clicking on the Op-Ed piece opened up a further 15 images with more than half of them being new images from the main page and only 3 relating to the actual editorial piece.

The Mail and Guardian is fairly conservative in the number of images that they publish (not in their ideology mind you which is probably leaning towards the liberal), so I clicked through to another news site, News 24, which more openly gathers its funding from advertising rather than print sales. As soon as this page loaded I was able to count 76 different images on the landing page of the site. Clicking on a financial article (not exactly image rich reading one would think) revealed another 12 images of which only 1 applied to the article itself (a rather poor image of the SA president wearing a hard hat and wandering past a technician with closed eyes).

Quite possibly we will eventually see a change in attitude towards well thought out and crafted images as being valuable in their own right. Admittedly I am doubtful of this. I certainly believe that there is artistic, financial value in images, but as long as the the people consuming those images believe in the ease and inexpensive nature of creating those images (whether this is true or not is immaterial - it is perception rather than reality that governs value of craft and art), then the overall value of imagery will remain low. At least in the past, with film images, value was ascribed in hindsight. Now, with the plethora of photographers and recording devices out there, this too is doubtful. 

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