Technologies, necessary and otherwise (part three)

This is the last of three blog entries, for the moment, exploring my thoughts on technology. The entire set came from things swirling through my head lately. Events, especially e-mails, prompted me to organize those thoughts into the first two e-mails. This entry explores the starting point for all three posts, which was the fairly non-technical process of spring-cleaning.

Every year at about this time, I go through some parts of my house (and especially my office) in order to purge stuff that is simply no longer of value/interest. About a month ago, I sat down and went through the thousands of duplicate slides that I had made over the years and purged 99% of them. For those newer photographers/readers, duplicate slides are, as their name suggests, copies of original slides. Photographers once used those dupes to share their work without actually sending out their precious and unique originals.

In sorting through those I was reminded of all the duping technologies I had explored. Some labs I worked with swore by making dupes on Kodachrome. They said that worked great as long as you flashed the unexposed film with a tiny bit of light to lower the contrast before actually duplicating the slide in question. Others insisted only Kodak duping film worked, while others swore by Fuji film. Over more than two decades of shooting slide film, I (and many other photographers like me) struggled with mixed success in terms of making good, sharable duplicate slides of our work.

The irony of course is that slide duplicating is about as commonly practiced these days as setting type by hand. Obviously, digital imaging has vaporized that quest, so that all I was left with was a lot of recyclable plastic slide pages and many, many slides to be destroyed. (I favor the ‘fill the trash bag with water and get them all soaking wet’ method. Others stab tall stacks of slides with knives or scissors, which is what I used to do, but it took too long.)

About two weeks ago, I did essentially the same thing with my print archive, those boxes and boxes of silver-gelatin prints. Again, for the newer photographers, though ink based prints are the norm these days, for decades, all photographs (whether color or black and white) were made on paper with various types of silver-based, light sensitive coating. Now, 99% of my work is disseminated digitally, so those prints have literally not been touched or used for almost a decade. So one day I went through them all, destroyed and dumped most of the duplicates.

When I was printing my own black and white, I used to need to make dozens of copies of an image when I was in the darkroom. I figured since I spent the better part of a day figuring out how to get a given print just right, make many copies on the spot. I made a set of five 11 x 14 inch archival fiber based prints (for potential exhibitions and collectors.) Then I made a set of ten 8 x 10 inch archival fiber based prints (also for potential exhibitions and collectors.) Finally, I made a set of twenty 8 x 10 inch prints on RC (resin coated) paper. These were “press prints” which I used to promote my work knowing that at least half of those sets of prints would never be returned. Now, a decade later, those many, many prints were mostly taking up storage space. So again, I sat down and went through them, found the best prints and purged the rest of them.

I did the same thing with the many color prints that I made over the years. During my artist’s residency at Light Works in Syracuse, NY, I learned how to print with color negatives and so, like with my black and white, once I figured out exactly how to dodge and burn a print just the way I wanted, I made many copies. I even had access one summer to a machine for processing Cibachromes (or Ilfochromes) so once I figured out how to dodge and burn a give print (from a slide,) I made many of those prints too, hoping never to have to reprint that image.

So what did I learn from the latest “purge?” A couple things:

1) I used tons and tons of silver over the decades that I was a film-based photographer. I am serious that in the totality of all the film and all the prints I made during my entire film based photography career I probably used tons. Did I use materials that contained ounces of silver? By the millions! Pounds of silver? By the thousands! Tons of silver? Probably a few.

Today, with digital imaging, I am using so little silver for my imaging it is negligible. 95% of the imagery that earns income for me is published, increasingly on the Internet, so again little or no silver is involved there. Yes, I am aware of all the chemistry involved in making digital cameras, but I wonder how the global ecological footprint of today’s camera compares with the film cameras I used in previous decades. I am keeping the chemistry of lens production out of such an equation because we had lenses when I was film-based and still do now that I am digitally imaging.

2) Like the military, when planning for the future, I have a bad habit of “fighting the last battle.” The idea of spending a day in the darkroom, making dozens of prints of one negative was born out of my experience. But I was doing that just as digital imaging was growing towards the point of negating the need for that expense of time, effort and materials. Similarly all the effort I spent figuring out how to make duplicate slides was almost as wasted, since digital was right around the corner as I was doing that.

Today, I wonder which part of my workflow will turn out to be “fighting the last battle.” Since “going digital” I have been archiving my entire shoots on Gold foil DVDs, to the tune of $2 per disk. These disks are more archivally stable than regular DVDs because they use Gold in the metal where the information is recorded. I use two disks, for double back up, for each 4.7 GB of data. I was doing the math recently and it looks like I would be smarter (and more cost efficient) to buy a couple of giant 4 TB drives and put all that material there.

I am coming to accept that like my dupe slides, though DVDs are the rage now, the end is in sight for their usefulness. The cost of hard drive storage space is plummeting downward and will soon reach a point where optical media, (meaning CDs and DVDs which use lasers to write information,) will soon be technological dinosaurs.

Choosing and using technology ends up being a balancing act, like so many things in life. At one time, dupe slides and silver based prints were the latest technology. Over time, I became increasingly more efficient at getting those to do what I needed done. Then they started to outlive their usefulness and now they are almost historical artifacts. Though the technology keeps being made obsolete, as a photographer I am trying my best not to end up the same way.

The best technology can eat up your time or it can free up your time. There really is no one size fits all. What I do know, from my own experience, is that trying to find one technology that will never change and solve all your problems is a fool’s errand at best.

4 responses to “Technologies, necessary and otherwise (part three)”

  1. Don’t you have a degree in archival…something? Didn’t the destruction of all those slides and prints tear away at some part of your sensibility?

    I have also wondered about the ecological footprint of film vs. digital. I have to assume that the making and using of a digital camera must use less water and other resources than a comparable film camera (I’m just considering all the water, chemistry, and power that the big cine-roll processors I used to work on used or even the many gallons of water I would use to archival wash B&W film and paper).

    I would like to know your suggestions for field storage and archiving images (did you walk through this earlier; I may have missed it). I’ve just purchased Aperture a couple months ago but have not really set it up in a disciplined way. I’ve sort of dumped everything into a RAID array so it’s hypothetically ‘safe’ but not essentially organised.

  2. An upcoming blog entry will speak to this: “Don’t you have a degree in archival… something? Didn’t the destruction of all those slides and prints tear away at some part of your sensibility?”

    As for this: “I would like to know your suggestions for field storage and archiving images… ”

    It is in bits and pieces in the various blogs that you might want to search, but I am thinking it also is a blog (or maybe a podcast showing my desktop) in the making, exploring my entire workflow.

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