“Let me show you the pictures,” people say. They disappear for a second, then reappear carrying their camera. Or their cellphone. Or if you are lucky, their iPad or laptop. You flip through the digital files, scroll them across the two-or-three-inch screen, and you hand the device back. For many people, this is what photography has become…a medium whose final product is a file, not an artifact, bits of data rather than bits of paper. It has turned images into disposable, unreal things. I don’t mean that we no longer care about them; but I think they have definitely become less special, and less valuable as markers of time and place.
This troubles me not as a photographer who, after all, deals mostly in the digital realm. It troubles me as a person who thinks a lot about personal history and artifact, and how following generations will come to know about their ancestors. My mother-in-law tells a story about relatives of hers who found that old shoe box in the attic, stuffed not just with detailed letters, but also with short, quippy, newsy postcards of just a sentence or two, sent back and forth between friends, neighbors, and family. We can thank a forward-thinking person for saving all of those in a box and never getting around to discarding them. We can thank their tangibility for what these notes taught the current generation about those who came before them.
Today, these little notes would have been on Facebook and Twitter, and sure, there’s an archive there that is sworn to be permanent. But I don’t know. The shoebox seems safer to me, and it will never turn up in an obsolete file format, and even if it has a little mold on it, or some water stains, it won’t suffer from catastrophic failure the way files can.
We’re probably never going back, or at least not soon, to the days of the lengthy personal letter that ruminates on an item in a directly personal way; such reflection seems to be the domain of the face-to-face meeting today. That is a sign that we are moving away from literary forms of storytelling as a way of processing our personal lives, and are moving instead to both oral and visual formats. We are less likely today to write a letter to one person when we get home than we are to shoot a camera phone shot and post it, for all our contacts, on instagram, while we are still out.
There are two issues this raises: the permanence and accessibility of digital media for legacy or heirloom purposes, and the ultimate decipherability of images as precise historical and storytelling artifacts.
Sure, photographs fade (although you should really check out the technical data on inkjet print permanence…quite encouraging) and paper dissolves underwater. But files get corrupted, memory formats change, cameras and memory cards get lost, cellphones get dropped off piers. A photographic print, well-taken care of, can be passed along and along and along.
As for the specific ability of images to tell stories exactly, I don’t think they ever can…that’s what socializing and sharing is all about. An image is an image, a moment, and stories unfold in words over a period of time. The purpose of a photograph in a family history is to be held and passed around while someone who was there or heard the story informs the moments before and after the image. Then the image becomes complete.
So my project is this: every day this year, I am going to make a print. Some will be large, some will be small, some new captures, some old, some black and white, some color, some digital, some film, maybe even a polaroid or two thrown in for fun. The back of each will be notated with the print date, the capture date, the location of the image and the names of anyone known in the picture, the camera and technical info (I am, after all, a knob-turner of a photographer), and the sequence number of the project. At the end of the year, I’ll have 366 pieces of paper that someone else can use to tell stories about me and my family.
I think you should join me in this project. Make a print a day. Or a print a week. Whatever it is, make prints. On your own, through a lab, even at the local drugstore or retail store. Show them around, tell the stories, and keep them safe, because they are important.