Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Archiving Photography in the Digital Age

When you meet Narcissus along the road, shoot him. Use good film when you do.

I'm an analog sort of fellow myself. That is to say, I like to make pit-fired pottery, the original way to get things done. My favorite method of making an image is to do woodcut printmaking. I like to shoot photographs with film in the camera. Never mind the thousands of hours I've spent generating fractals on the computer or an equal amount of time spend digitally editing photographs and videos. I would rather listen to all my old vinyl albums on a turntable than use ear-buds and listen to digitally compressed music off my cell phone. Right now I have mp3's loaded on my I-phone. I don't have access to any lp's or a turntable.

So I'm a list of contradictions. Now that that is out of the way, there's a greater question riding the airwaves of various conversations regarding the value of photograph in modern day society. I'm currently reading a book about Eadweard Muybridge. I started it in 2009 after I bought it used at the library for fifty cents. I haven't even got to the part where he takes a “selfie” of himself and a couple of indigenous tribesmen in California before they (the Indians) were all wiped out in the “Indian wars”. So that's how informed I am on the topic. I've read a couple of books on film making as well, just to impress you with my lengthy knowledge about photographic film and film making. They were both books about film making before the twentieth century. It might have started with the work of Muybridge but like I said, I haven't gotten that far yet. So this is where we start.

Thanks to digital photography and the cell phone, I've seen more photographs of people on Face Book with them holding up the phone in the mirror of the bathroom (or public restroom) with the commode in the background in the past few years than anyone in history has seen before “social networking web sites” and digital photograph happened. Face Book is currently hosting the largest archive of digital photographs in the world. One gets a sense of this all being disposable reality. At least these are selfies with the commode in the background and not with indigenous people who are in the way of progress. This is the age of disposable reality, but one does hope they flushed first, then took the photograph of themselves.

Somewhere in between archeological digs of old village sites with pottery that was pit-fired and digital photographs of earth from satellites in space, there was a moment in time when there was concerned about creating work that would be available for future generations. Never mind that pottery has proven to be the most archival work that humans have created so far. Smoke soot and clay on cave walls comes in a close second. There is actual information that needs to be preserved for usage in the future. How to get that information to last that long and be in a physical form that can be accessed is a good question. One could look at what has lasted the longest already and see if that is a good model to work from.

I don't think that Narcissus was that much of a freak in human history. There is some merit to the idea of self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-consciousness. Dancers watch themselves in the mirror a lot. That is how they improve with their form. Spiritual growth happens through looking within. Self-replication is a form of species survival. (Okay, I just like that line so never mind.) When we follow history from what is known to be preserved from pottery and cave paintings on down through stone sculptures and oil paintings on treated canvas on forward to photography with film and the digital kind, there isn't a lot of hope for the modern technology in the archival situation. Photographic prints don't last very long. What good is it for Narcissus to take a selfie and then outlive it?

That conversation comes up a lot when discussing art and photography. This is a disposable society that treats everything like cigarette lighters; use them up and toss them. While there is a degree of appreciation for the lack of attachment to the fleeting digital reality that keeps sweeping over us on a daily basis, there is a lack of integrity in the greater scheme of things. So of this information might be relevant beyond the individual seeking instant gratification. I mean, don't let me throw a wet rag on the party here but some of this attitude is borne out of a response to the nuclear age where the push of a single button could reduce a good deal of the human population to radioactive dust in the blink of an eye. If that possibility became a reality then there isn't much reason to invest a lot of energy into creating anything that is going to be here 20,000 years. The pyramids in Egypt would be a lump of glass in the post-nuclear age.

Others have a different response to the importance of time. This is, after all, a conversation about time. That's what brought Eadweard Muybridge into the conversation to start with. He made important advancements in the camera in order to capture images on glass plates. He created ways to capture multiple images of the same subject to show motion over a period of time. Others took the idea and created cameras that could do the same thing through a single camera and invented film making. Narcissus didn't survive his own obsession of his reflection in the water. The rest of us may not either.

I watched several video documentaries about the preservation of photographs and digital art today and that prompted me to rejoin the conversation with others with this short essay. On some levels the technology of being able to create an image is advancing faster than the ability to produce that image in an archival manner. Even the crisis of the hour that occurred when the Star Wars movies were being released several decades after they were produced brought the issue to light. The film they were dedicated to and distributed was not very archival and the producers never bothered to have them preserved onto an archival film. There was just enough footage of the first movie from all the films in storage to recreate the first film. Another year in storage and the film would have been lost to time.

A lot of work has been produced and left to face time alone in boxes in storage on very fragile media. How important this work is remains in question. If left to Narcissus, it is all valuable. In a world where half a billion photographs are being uploaded to Face Book daily, Narcissus wins the argument as long as there are funds to keep investing in more digital storage facilities and programmers to keep up with the databases. In the video, The Invisible Photograph: Part 1 (Underground), one commentator states that we can participate in this process for free. That isn't an accurate statement, but compared to the expense of buying a film camera, film, developing the film and making prints from the film, this does look like a free medium now. I can take a photograph with my I-phone and post the file to Face Book and have it seen globally to an audience of thousands in a few minutes. For someone who made a living by taking photographs on film in remote areas of the world, hoping the film would survive the trip back to the darkroom and a print onto a magazine editor's desk, and finally to print, this ability to produce and distribute work is mind-boggling. To have a show of photographs in a gallery forty or fifty years ago and compare that to what is being done today blows the mind.

I like these videos. It just gives me a little hope, after all.

Oliver Loveday © May 20, 2014, 11:30 pm EDT

More about the work of Oliver Loveday can be found at Loveday Studio.