Since its very beginnings, photography has been a difficult medium to preserve. The Journal of the Photographic Society, based in London and one of the first journals dedicated to the art of photography, published its first study on the fading of photographs in 1855. The journal itself began publication only two years earlier; photography itself was barely 20 years old. According to the 1855 report, image fading was thought to be related to a variety of factors, including chemical processing, environmental conditions and the deleterious effects of various adhesives and mounts.1
Colour photographs and transparencies from the twentieth century also proved troublesome, tending to fade or to undergo significant colour shifts and loss of detail. So familiar is this deterioration to us all that Instagram, a popular photographic app for smart phones, offers a filter called 1977 that imitates the washed out, colour-altered appearance of many actual photos from this era. (I can never bring myself to use this filter, as I know it imitates loss and deterioration).
The degradation of nitrate and acetate film stock caused huge management issues for public and private collections alike, with total loss of films common. The management of nitrate and acetate film continues to be a major concern for motion picture archives, of course, but it is worth remembering that the majority of 20th century commercially available film stock, professional and amateur, was made using an acetate base. Slides, roll film, microfilm, transparencies and so on can undergo the same chemical deterioration as motion picture film.2
Many of these problems stem from the inherent nature of photographic media. Metallic image-forming salts are prone to attack by acid, alkali and moisture; colour dyes are prone to fade; acetate and nitrate generate acids as they deteriorate, hastening their own destruction. Humidity, pollutants and higher temperatures exacerbate these chemical reactions. Galleries, libraries, archives and museums try to store film and print photographic media in cool, cold or frozen storage, to slow the chemical changes occurring, but this is an expensive solution and is not always an option. Some galleries will purchase two copies of colour photographic prints — a preservation copy to be placed in long-term cool storage, and one for display.
Digital media, however, poses its own set of problems. Whereas the storage and preservation of traditional photographic media is, to a large extent, a “passive” process (the object is packaged and placed it in storage and essentially left alone, with some ongoing monitoring of condition), digital preservation requires a more active presence.
Everyone knows that the rate of change in the world of digital technology is extreme. In the last decade we’ve already seen major shifts in storage formats — floppy disks are gone and optical disks are falling by the wayside. Now people store their images on hard drives or in “the cloud”. (It should be remembered that storage “in the cloud” really means your data is stored on someone else’s hard drive, somewhere, or perhaps on several, which you access via the internet. The cloud still relies on physical hardware and magnetic media).
However, you can’t necessarily go away and leave your digital files for years at a time, like you can with film and print formats. Do that and you risk not being able to open the file at all — particularly if you’ve stored them on a now-obsolete storage medium, or if they’re attached to image-manipulation software that is now years out of date. Hard drives are also prone to failure, though to date there are surprisingly few studies that attempt to characterize the nature and rate of hard drive failure. A study by Google employees found that hard drives had higher failure rates in their “infant phase” (three months) and in their later years (from two years old). It is interesting to note that Google considers a hard drive of five years in age “very old”.3
Digital loss is complete when it does occur, rather than the more gradual degradation of analogue information. It may only be a pixel here and there to begin with, but image files can become aesthetically (or meaningfully) compromised, if not completely corrupted.4 Most photographers are aware of the importance in distinguishing between “lossy” and “lossless” formats. “Lossy” formats like JPGs compress data to make smaller files, meaning some pixels are essentially “invented” each time the image is opened, moved, copied, rotated and so on. Deterioration of these sorts of files happens more quickly. “Lossless” formats like TIFF images are much larger files and much better suited for long-term preservation, though of course they take up much more storage space.
As hardware and software changes, digital files must be constantly refreshed and transferred to new formats. However, obsolescence and hardware malfunction are not the only threats. With increasing reliance on third-party services via the cloud, image archives are increasingly at risk from market forces. If an online company decides to close up shop, goes bankrupt or even just fails to manage their own hardware properly, you may suddenly no longer have access to your files.
Let’s take Flickr as an example of these risks. Though fears of Flickr’s death on its acquisition by Yahoo and subsequent job cuts seem to have been misplaced, there’s no doubt that its place in the online community has altered.5 New platforms like Instagram, Google, Facebook and others have become the more popular photo-sharing platforms. “Sharing” is not the same as “archiving”, of course — a collecting organisation wouldn’t rely on these platforms as their primary archive — but many individuals have come to rely on sites like these for storage and, more importantly, organisation and description. If Yahoo decided to close Flickr — which they may choose to do, if it continues to slide in popularity and hence economic value — I would need to think hard about how I could preserve the groupings I’ve made, the descriptive information I’ve entered about various images, even comments from other users. I have all those images stored on my own hard drive, but they’re much easier to navigate, view and understand on Flickr. In other words, it’s not just the images that are important — the information attached to our photographs and the way they are organised, linked and presented also becomes vital.
The internet is prey to all sorts of other forces that can disrupt access — downed power lines, political censorship of sites, cyber attacks. The internet is a marvelous tool, but to expect any great degree of control over things you have put there (especially when utilizing free services) may be unwise. Keep more than one copy of your digital images, in more than one place and, if possible, in more than one format (e.g. digital/print/transparency). If you are digitizing print and transparency collections, keep the originals — it’s quite possible they may outlive their digital siblings, despite their own impermanence.
Notes and references
- See Nineteenth Century Photographic Research – A Legacy of Conservation Problems or an Inspiration to Contemporary Conservation Work by Hope Kingsley and Corinne Hillman for more information (In The Imperfect Image, The Centre for Photographic Conservation, London, 1992).
- A lot of excellent information about the deterioration and preservation of colour and film-based photographic material has been published by the Image Permanence Institute (IPI), based in Rochester, New York. See https://www.imagepermanenceinstitute.org/resources/publications.
- The Google study is very interesting and much more complex than I’ve presented here. See Pinheiro, Eduardo et al, 2007. Failure Trends in a Large Disk Drive Population. From the Proceedings of the 5th USENIX Conference on File and Storage Technologies (FAST’07). Available at http://static.googleusercontent.com/external_content/untrusted_dlcp/research.google.com/en//archive/disk_failures.pdf.
- This (excellent) article talks about the preservation of digital film rather than stills, but it has an example of what digital image loss can look like: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/02/13/pandoras-digital-box-pix-and-pixels/
- There are lots of articles and blog posts about Flickr’s fate — here’s one on job losses from the Guardian in 2010 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/dec/17/flickr-job-cut-yahoo) and a blog post on its changing place in our hearts (http://www.cc-chapman.com/2011/the-slow-death-of-flickr/).