You have brilliantly highlighted an existential issue, Grant, affecting the leagcy of all photographers, including those whose work was originally captured digitally.
Digital archives seem so ephemeral to me. I was once attracted to a startup company, as recently as 2010, whose business model hinged on creating analog backups of digitally captured images: DigiNeg. Yes, really! Their Web site is still running. But I don’t know if the company still is.
Notwithstanding the aesthetic preference some artists maintain for film, the ease with which one can capture images digitally has created a disconnect in some people’s minds about how best to conserve photographic imagery for posterity.
After shooting film, despite the personal toil of darkroom processing or dropping off and picking up at a lab, it was simpler and quicker to edit film and contact sheets with a loupe and a grease pencil than one can edit images on a computer screen. (It was also a more exacting creative process to shoot film in the first place, considering the ephemeral nature and expendability of overshot digital files.) We could slip an entire take of color trannies or b+w negs into an envelope, more or less drop it in a drawer, and — voilá! — it’s safe. Short of fire and flood (just as dangerous to computer hardware), it’s going to look just fine six hundred years from now. Sure, I enjoy the option of an off-site, cloud backup; but not as a total replacement for analog storage. It’s an ancillary safeguard.
It’s impossible to know for sure if a device or a technology capable of reading and reproducing (for viewing) the digital images stored on my hard drives, CD-ROMs, or in the cloud will exist twenty, ten, or even just five years from now. No one has yet convinced me why untold numbers of servers stacked in air-conditioned hangars—who knows where—are more archivally secure than the film Bill Gates stored in a former US Air Force nuclear bunker, inside a mountain in Colorado. (Of course, it’s now probably owned by Visual China Group who bought Gates’s Corbis company earlier this year. And we don’t know what implication that sale bodes!) In that context, phrases like “our digital heritage” sound oxymoronic. After all, how secure from hackers and cyber attack are our personal data, our business records besides photography, and our civil infrastructure, etc.? And, now, the Chinese government either owns or controls access to gazillions of the most important images ever created in the West.
Digital is less archival than analog film. Until recently, I felt obliged to continually back up my digital image files over and over again onto newer and newer media, to make sure they could be seen, read, studied, or whatever after I’m gone. (Unless I can upload my consciousness before my body dies, and giggle at the surviving meat people. 😝Are all photographers that conceited?) But I have become one of the lucky few whose entire life’s work, shot on film, has been acquired by a major American university for conservation and research availability. Whew! That’s a ball-and-chain (the physical file cabinets housing boatloads of pictures and ancillary material) I no longer bear as life moves along.
Whether the work is good or bad, subjectively speaking, and whether it includes all the outtakes and mistakes — all the warts, it represents a history, even if it’s not historic. Someone will find it useful or informative in the future. It should be preserved. As a species, we haven’t yet figured out how, definitively, to preserve our cultural heritage. It’s good to keep trying.