Thursday, 13 January 2011

Passing Clouds

Paternal great-grandparents, Edinburgh 1886
(yes, it appears great granny was a ventriloquist)

I've already had some things to say about the impermanence of photographic media. Given the fragility and limited span of human life itself, fretting about the longevity of one's photographs does seem a little vain, in both senses of the word, to say the least. Viewed sub specie aeternitatis, it's always going to be a hopeless proposition.

After all, this planet is going to be engulfed by the sun when it hits that awkward and moody red dwarf stage, in a mere 7.6 billion years from now. Though, given that it is true that rescuing the family photographs is one of the few things that will cause people to re-enter a burning house, maybe some kind of planetary album will make it onto the fleeing Starship Ultimate Insurance Claim.

However. If you, like me, enjoy thumbing through a stack of inherited family photos, and rejoice at acquiring a new one such as the one above, you may feel a certain obligation to pass on some objective evidence of your appearance and dodgy fashion sense to at least a few more generations. In this respect, digitally-originated images are a problem. On four levels:

1. Digital media are inherently unstable. Even the CDs and DVDs you have dutifully burned (you have burned DVDs of your files, haven't you?) are prone to fading if badly stored. No, really. And just forget about magnetic media like hard drives.

2. File formats become obsolete. Though it's likely standard JPEG and TIFF files will be readable "for ever" (maybe), the myriad proprietary RAW formats almost certainly won't be.

3. People are lazy, and forget to make backups. See (1).

4. When you die, your descendants will probably heave your precious backup DVDs into a skip, sight unseen. See (3). Would you sort through thousands of digital images, just to rescue the odd interesting shot of grandad's life?

Now, the advent of "The Cloud"* seemed to many to provide an answer to these dilemmas. For a modest sum of money, you could hire large amounts of space somewhere "out there", and dump all your files into the digital equivalent of a rented storage unit. With guarantees of secure, multiple backups, it seemed a perfect solution. I understand many people have gone for it in a big way, especially where file sharing and blogging is part of the deal.

Last week, I read this:

You may not have noticed or you might have already forgotten but on December 15, the website quietly ended a two-year run as the web’s most elegant file sharing service. It was a small taste of the cloud to come, the near future when everything will be stored on invisible servers and shared with a link – and not on our terribly physical hard drives or USB keys. Ad-free and clean, the site was exactly what so much of the internet isn’t: a place for our own making, without any distractions, and serving a simple and crucial purpose. Teachers used it to gather homework assignments, designers used it to send files with clients, music lovers used it to share their mixtapes with friends and crushes.

And then, just when we thought our data would live forever, free as a cloud – and our old mp3 mixtapes would always be there to keep us nostalgic – a bigger cloud came along and poof, it was gone. Facebook bought and its creator Sam Lessin (who helped Mark Zuckerberg out in early days). And that meant that this simple purpose-driven space for our stuff (what else do we need?) that seemed so secure (even the phrase “ Drop” contains its own redundancy) had to go away, along with all of the files we put there.

RIP when part of the cloud just floats away / Alex Pasternack

I also read that many people received only a few day's notice that all their files would be deleted; not frozen, or transferred, or briefly inaccessible, but deleted. I believe something similar happened a few years ago at Tumblr, the popular blogging and media sharing host. Hmm, "Put not your trust in princes..."

There is no easy answer to any of this, other than the traditional advice to make multiple backups on different media, the more stable the better, and keep them in separate, safe, archivally-sensible places. That is to say, avoid heat, light, humidity, pests, and sources of magnetism.

But here's a thought: why not print a few copies of the really good ones (using pigment inks if you really want to do a job), and keep them in acid-free albums, mounted with archival photo-corners? Your descendants will be among the very few with family photographs dating from the "digital disaster" era, 1998-2020. Everyone else's will have vanished into thin air.

A cloud, vanishing

* Distributed, web-based computing, with servers providing software and data to clients "on demand".


Graham D said...

Yes, despite all the advances of the digital era, there are few things to rival paper and ink as an archival medium. From 1994 to 2006 I ran a small engineering design & analysis consultancy. In 2013 I will no longer be obliged to keep my DAT tapes of the digital content that I created during this period. This is just as well, because although you can still get DAT tape drives, neither the operating system nor the software used to create them still exists; extinct in just a few short years.

Just about everything digital is evanescent, the software, OS, & hardware. I wonder what will cause my lovely LX3 camera to become redundant? Will it break down mechanically, will the electronics pack up as they did on my Fuji, or will I simply not be able to buy replacement batteries when the chemistry packs up in my current pair?

Of course, digital photography has given us many benefits. The biggest of all of these is instant feedback of the on-camera monitor, but for me the second is the ability to create affordable self-published books. We now have a way of passing our thoughts and pictures down to our children and beyond in a structured, labelled and compact way that takes up little space on the bookshelf. Surely they won’t deny us this small piece of posterity?

Mike C. said...


Your comment about on-demand books is excellent, and a point that I wish I'd made myself, as an avid Blurb user. I don't know if anyone has tested the longevity of the ink/paper combo used by these services, but I'd be surprised if it was significantly worse than a trade-produced book.

As for the evanescence of IT... I was an early adopter of "microcomputers", and had the first desktop box in our institution -- a PC with two 5.25" floppy drives and no hard drive!

I therefore have lots of significant correspondence and data stored on 5.25 floppies which can only be read by this venerable machine, which is kept in a cupboard on a "just in case" basis... When I retire I doubt there'll be anyone left in the entire university who knows how to boot up a DOS PC from floppy.

I feel your anxiety about the LX3! I still mourn the death of my Olympus C5050, every time I open the cupboard and see it there. It is a thing of perfect functional beauty, that took marvellous pictures. I keep meaning to try putting fresh batteries in, just in case... On the other hand, what would I do now with 5 Mpixel JPEGs?


Gavin McL said...

Sometimes though digital brings you back in contact with old family photographs.
My great great great uncle William Brown was a keen amateur photographer who travelled the world with his wife between the wars. When he died my grandfather was given his glass plate slides and I remember looking through them as a child.
When my Grandfather sold his house he gave most to a local profesional photographer, what happend to those I don't know but a small collection of photos he took when he worked in the Shetland Islands (he was a doctor) at the end of the 19th century was given to the shetland museum service. They are now digitised and available on their website.
(Don't expect an undiscovered Ansel Adams)
But of course they wouldn't be on the webnet if the hadn't been stored as glass slides for 80 years.

William himself appears in a couple of the photos - The man sitting on the rock is him

Excellent hat by the way on your great grandfather


Dave Leeke said...

Yes, I agree with Gavin, it is rather an excellent hat - and a rather fine moustache too.

I cannot possibly comment on the technical aspects of your post but would very much like to support the idea that future generations may like the opportunity to see old photos much as we do (not grammatically correct). Being able to see a photo of myself and my daughter (age 1) with my father and his father - four generations that very briefly crossed in time - is an important document that that moment happened. And as you say, Mike, if you rely on it being there for eternity in cyberspace, you may be disappointed. Spinning in one's grave in anger won't make much difference. The moment was lost.

Mike C. said...

Some of those are good to look at, Gavin -- I like the crew of the "sixareen" (what are those trousers made of?), and I particularly like "man and woman with skate" ... You may not know that it is illegal to bring skate ashore whole, for reasons we need not go into, but which may explain the smirk on their faces.


Kent Wiley said...

Somehow it feels appropriate that the oldest means of storage is still the most stable: paper. It might not have the immediacy of digital display, or the range of films, but it's durability and portability are yet to be rivaled, as much as I love our iPad.

Mike C. said...

You have an iPad, Kent? Did you buy the Tom Phillips Humument app?

How can you resist?


Kent Wiley said...

Not yet. I'm too cheap I guess.

Gavin McL said...


I would have thought the defining feature of the sixareen crew was their beards, not their trousers.

I like the names, those rocks he took so many photos of "The Drongs"
They could be monsters from a 1950's kids comic or a band from the early seventies maybe?

My grandfather told me that these slides formed part of a presentation William would to Womens Institutes and the like. Perhaps he explained the skate story then?


Mike C. said...

"Perhaps he explained the skate story then?"

Perhaps he did, but I doubt it, unless there is a record that he was torn limb from limb by an outraged WI audience? I don't know whether it's still in force, but the law certainly used to prohibit the landing of whole skate because their mouthparts were considered indecent, and a provocation. It is still the custom, I believe, always to prepare skate "wings" at sea, and jettison the main body.


Steve. said...

May I introduce a fifth problematic level?

5. The 'delete' button. I think this is problematic because those technically bad shots often become tomorrow's gems, especially if they have family or friends in the frame. I often find interesting stuff on negative sheets that I'd rejected years earlier.

Going slightly off topic here. The delete thing is also really problematic for historians. Naturally all peak-level documents are preserved. But what of the dairies and letters that illuminate how real people lived? Our modern equivalents, blogs and email are ruthlessly culled at whim and years of thoughts can disappear in a second. I often wonder how tomorrow's historians will find their data.

Mike C. said...


These are both very apposite points, again which I wish I'd made myself (but that's what comments are for!).

Mind you, very few documents from "ordinary" lives have ever made it through to the present day and the care of an archive. When someone dies, the burden of dealing with their "stuff" can be overwhelming -- the temptation is just to clear the decks. That's why collections like the Paston Letters are so important.

The exception has been wartime diaries, of which the Imperial War Museum has a large collection (though, again, I think I'm right in saying that only officers were officially allowed to keep one).

But, yes, you can't help but worry that there will be an enormous "memoir void" in the future -- a new Dark Ages.

N.B. a technical note: it is unwise to delete frames "in camera" -- this can lead to problems with memory cards, even if you re-format the card before each fresh batch of images (which you should). Far better to transfer them all, and edit on the computer. I have to say I rarely delete anything even then, for the reasons you give.


sEAN bENTLEY said...

What a thought-provoking post! I'm just beginning to work on "cloud technology" at my workplace, and it's almost heretical to suggest that there might be issues with keeping important things in such an ephemeral "place." Let alone getting into hacking, EMP, power outages, and so on.

So yeah - prints, on acid-free paper, kept in a waterproof and fireproof metal box!