Sunday, August 03, 2014


Two long-buried caches of photographs came to light last year. One was a stack of cellulose nitrate negatives made on the Scott Antarctic expedition almost a hundred years ago. Over time, they became stuck together into a moldy brick, but it was possible to tease the negatives apart and see what they revealed. You can view the images at the web site of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust. The results show ragged edges and mold spots but, even beyond their historical importance, the photographs are evocative and in some cases very beautiful.

The other cache contained images not quite so old and of less general interest but of personal importance. My mother moved from the house she had occupied for decades into a smaller apartment and while preparing to move she found the proverbial shoe box of old pictures in a closet. Some of the images are from my youth, some from hers, and some even from her parents'. One of the photographs, from 1931, shows my paternal great-grandparents. I never met my paternal grandparents, let alone great-grandparents, so this photograph touches something almost primordial for me. And some of the photographs in the box were even older.

Due to the miracle of photography, we are able to see over a hundred years into the past. Of course this is not news; all of us have seen 19th century photographs by the pioneers of the medium. By the turn of the 20th century photography was so common that huge numbers of images, from the historical to the mundane, had been created. And sometimes we are lucky enough to chance upon forgotten images that open a window into a past that would otherwise fade from view.

But such windows are becoming rare. A hundred years from now, there will be far fewer photo caches to find. Although the transition to digital photography has made photos almost unimaginably commonplace—one estimate puts the number of shutter activations at a trillion images worldwide per year—very few of those images become artifacts that can be left in a shoe box.

We live in what has been named a Digital Dark Age. Because digital technology evolves so fast, we are rapidly losing the ability to understand yesterday's media. As file formats change, software becomes obsolete, and hardware becomes outmoded, old digital files become unreadable and unrecoverable.

There are many examples of lost information, but here is an illustrative story of disaster narrowly averted. Early development of the Unix operating system, which became the software foundation for the Internet, was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s on Digital Equipment Corporation computers. Backups were made on a magnetic medium called a DECtape. By the mid 1970s, DECtape was obsolete and by the 1980s there were no remaining DECtape drives that could read the old backups. The scientists in the original Unix lab had kept a box of old backups under the raised floor of the computer room, but the tapes had spontaneously become unreadable because the device to read them no longer existed in the lab or anywhere else as far as anyone knew. And even if it did, no computer that could run the device was still powered on. Fortunately, around 1990 Paul Vixie and Keith Bostic, working for a different company, stumbled across an old junked DECtape drive and managed to get it up and running again by resurrecting an old computer to connect it to. They contacted the Unix research group and offered one last chance to recover the data on the backup tapes before the computer and DECtape drive were finally decommissioned. Time and resources were limited, but some of the key archival pieces of early Unix development were recovered through this combination of charity and a great deal of luck. This story has a happy ending, but not all digital archives survive. Far from it.

The problem is that as technology advances, data needs to be curated. Files need to have their formats converted, and then transferred to new media. A backup disk in a box somewhere might be unreadable a few years from now. Its format may be obsolete, the software to read it might not run on current hardware, or the media might have physically decayed. NASA lost a large part of the data collected by the Viking Mars missions because the iron oxide fell off the tapes storing the data.

Backups are important but they too are temporary, subject to the same problems as the data they attempt to protect. Backup software can become obsolete and media can fail. The same affliction that damaged the Viking tapes also wiped out my personal backup archive; I lost the only copy of my computer work from the 1970s. (It's worth noting my negatives and prints from the period survived.)

It's not just tapes that go bad. Consider CDs and DVDs, media often used for backup. The disks, especially the writable kind use for backups, are very fragile, much more so than the mass-produced read-only kind used to store music and movies. Within a few years, especially in humid environments, the metal film can separate from the backing medium. Even if the backup medium survives, the formats used to store the backups might become obsolete. The software that reads the backups might not run on the next computer one buys. Today, CDs are already becoming relics; many computers today do not even come with a CD or DVD drive. What were once the gold standard for backup are already looking old-fashioned just a few years on. They will be antiquated and obscure a century from now.

To summarize, digital information requires maintenance. It's not sufficient to make backups; the backups also need to be maintained, upgraded, transferred, and curated. Without conscientious care, the data of today will be lost forever in a few years. Even with care, it's possible through software or hardware changes to lose access forever. That shoebox of old backup CDs will be unreadable soon.

Which brings us back to those old photo caches. They held negatives and prints, physical objects that stored images. They needed no attention, no curating, no updating. They sat untended and forgotten for decades, but through all that time faithfully held their information, waiting for a future discoverer. As a result, we can all see what the Scott Antarctic expedition saw, and I can see what my great-grandparents looked like.

It is a sad irony that modern technology makes it unlikely that future generations will see the images made today.

Ask yourself whether your great-grandchildren will be able to see your photographs. If the images exist only as a digital image file, the answer is almost certainly, "No". If, however, there are physical prints, the odds improve. Those digital images need to be made real to endure. Without a print, a digital photograph has no future.

We live in a Digital Dark Age, but as individuals we can shine a little light. If you are one of the uncounted photographers who enjoy digital photography, keep in mind the fragility of data. When you have a digital image you care about, for whatever reason, artistic or sentimental, please make a print and put that print away. It will sit quietly in the dark, holding fast, never forgetting, ready to reveal itself to a grateful future generation.