Digital files, like life, are temporary

Kathryn Olmstead. Photographed in the BDN studio July 23, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
Kathryn Olmstead. Photographed in the BDN studio July 23, 2010. (Bangor Daily News/John Clarke Russ)
Posted Dec. 09, 2010, at 7:16 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:44 a.m.

I have taken thousands of pictures in the last three years, but I have not made many photographs. I have images, but not photographs.

For me, a photograph is still about light — the correct exposure of light on film and the magic of an image emerging after light passes through the film onto photo-sensitive paper. It’s about seeing how light illumines a scene or person and knowing how to coordinate shutter speed and lens opening to capture that image.

I like the experience of adjusting a ring on my lens and envisioning the flaps of the aperture opening and closing inside. I like to hear the shutter respond to my setting for long or brief moments of exposure. These things make sense to me. I can wrap my mind around them.

But three years ago, I decided it was time to enter the 21st century and buy a digital camera. I was about to take a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, to see the polar bears and I wanted a nice long lens. It was time for a new camera and I found a digital someone had turned in for an upgrade.

It was love-hate at first sight. I loved being able to see what I had just taken and delete the duds, but hated being dependent on a computer to select what to print. I loved being able to change the camera’s light sensor speed without changing film, but hated the need to memorize the steps required to make the change. It was neat to have countless aperture openings, but I needed my glasses to read the numbers on the LCD screen — glasses I had to take off to focus the camera.

Frequently I’d have the photo all framed only to find I had inadvertently pushed the button to delay the shutter so the photographer could get in the picture, resulting in a photo of the ground at my feet. Or I’d fail to notice the icon on the screen telling me I had changed the drive mode to continuous shooting, resulting in three frames of the ground at my feet. Reading the tiny icons on the screen was like learning a new hieroglyphic language — tough for a word person.

So I enrolled in an adult education class on digital photography. At the opening session the instructor said, “The first thing you need to know is there is no way, as yet, to archive digital images. You must print them out and save the originals before you begin editing.”

He distributed an article by Brad Reagan from Popular Mechanics magazine describing how changes in the computer system on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz caused errors in the maintenance instructions stored on CDs appropriate for the ship’s previous computers. Little things such as a dotted line instead of a solid one raised doubts about the accuracy of all the stored information detailing how to maintain the vessel.

“Users are discovering that records, photos and other documents recorded on yesterday’s computer systems are rapidly becoming inaccessible as those formats evolve,” Reagan writes. “Our digital information — everything from photos of loved ones to diagrams of Navy ships — is at risk of degrading, becoming unreadable or disappearing altogether.”

Many of the images taken with my digital cameras (yes, I bought a second one) are stored on CDs. Most remain on memory cards. I can’t see them without a computer and have yet to devise an effective method of cataloging. I make very few prints. Do these images have a future?

Does it matter? Something about the impermanence, abundance and potential for manipulation of digital images diminishes their value. The computer has changed photography from skillful exposure of light on film and paper to manipulation of electronic information. The digital photography class taught me so many ways I can alter and enhance photos that I no longer trust images I see in print. And I appreciate that they are called images, not photographs.

I recently ordered reprints of some photos I had taken in the 1970s. I simply held the negative strips up to a light, wrote down the numbers of the frames I wanted, took them to the photo shop and picked up the prints the next day. Simple. The professionals did all the work. I am happy to pay them for the time it takes, the ink they use in their printers and mechanical skill required to operate the processor, which is probably more sophisticated than any I could afford, to produce photographs.

I met a young photographer at a wedding who told me he uses a digital camera for snapshots, but film for images he wants to save. I liked that, as I wondered what to do with hundreds of travel slides that were memories for my parents, but have little meaning for me.

If progress erases my digital images, future generations will not have to agonize over disposing of them. The digital image is as temporary as life itself. Perhaps accepting a world of impermanence will make it easier for me to let go in the end.

In the meantime, I have some negatives of family photos taken before and shortly after I was born that my mother saved and passed on to me. I think I will have them made into photographs.

Kathryn Olmstead is a retired University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached by e-mail at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu.

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