The one thousand year archive


General Photography

What I find interesting is that within the relatively short time span of the history of photography we have moved from having photographs that will easily last one hundred years on their own to photographs that won’t last a millisecond once power is gone.

There’s a project to build ten thousand year clock, a clock that will literally “run” for such a long period of time. The reason why I’ve been a bit fascinated by this is not so much the technology (a considerable challenge). There is another aspect that I seem to remember I read about somewhere (can’t find the link): The clock will have to obviously be a clock. If you assume that ten thousand years in the future there are still humans around (despite our best efforts to ruin our own living conditions on this planet), those future humans will have to be able to understand that the contraption is a clock. It sounds so simple, but once you notice how hard it often is to understand human artifacts made even “just” 2,000 years ago, you realize there is an actual challenge. This is where things get interesting, photography-wise. (more)

Of course we have no photography dating back to roughly before the middle of the 19th Century. But just like we have paintings going way further back - for example, I remember seeing portraits painted (if memory serves me right) in the 4th Century in Egypt - future generations will have photographs of us (just as an aside, won’t that make you think twice before uploading each and every silly photo you’ve taken to Flickr or Facebook? Actually, it might not have to, but not for the reasons you think).

Just like we intuitively can have a connection with the painted face of someone who lived over one thousand years ago, it is easily conceivable that future generations might look at some of the photos taken today. Unlike in the case of that clock they will “understand” easily what they’re looking at.

So why did I even mention that clock? Well, one of the aspects of building that clock is to construct it from materials that will last 10,000 years. You don’t have to think about time spans like that to see how photography has a pretty big problem.

I was reminded of this problem when I saw the talk about the end of Kodachrome. If we brush all the nostalgia aside, there is one aspect that’s of interest here: the film is incredibly stable, if you store it more or less correctly. Buy a box of old slides at a yard sale or on Ebay, and you’ll see what I mean: You can usually easily tell the Kodachromes and all the rest apart - typically, the former will look like just when it was taken (featuring the famous Kodachrome colours), the rest… not so much.

And that’s a problem that seems to have got worse with time. For example, I think I linked to this article earlier this year. Needless to say, there are all kinds of details - keeping your slides/prints/negs out of the light is obvious, storing them in the right climate is kind of obvious, but more expensive.

What I find interesting is that within the relatively short time span of the history of photography we have moved from having photographs that will easily last one hundred years on their own (or longer, think tintypes, for example) to photographs that won’t last a millisecond once power is gone (think all those digital photographs on your hard drive).

You could easily imagine a future generation of humans that won’t use electricity (if I knew what it was I wouldn’t be writing this blog, I’d be working on the patent) and that will be puzzled about all those funny metal boxes with those weird plastic disks inside. Those humans won’t have much trouble understanding what they look at when they find a tintype, but will they ever be first, interested and second, then able to hook up an old hard drive, read it and find a way to display what we call a “jpeg”?

It’s the end of yet another year, so I might as well take that ball and run with it: Given how hard it is for us even read data written not even fifty years ago… Don’t believe me? Have a look at this:

“Forty years ago, unmanned lunar orbiters circled the moon taking extremely high-res photos of the surface to plan landing spots for Apollo 11 onward… In this McDonalds, the only copy of that data is about to be resurrected. […] They have never been seen by the public because at the time, they were classified because they would reveal the extreme precision of our spy satellites. Instead, all we have ever seen are the grainy photo of a photo images that were released to the public. The spacecraft did not ship this film back to Earth. Instead, they developed the film on the Lunar Orbiter and then raster scanned the negatives with a 5 micron spot (200 lines/millimeter resolution) and beamed the data back to Earth using yet-to-be-patented-by-others lossless analog compression. Three ground stations on Earth (one was in Madrid) recorded the transmissions on these magnetic tapes. Recovering the data has proven to be very difficult, requiring technological archeology. The only working version of the Ampex tape player ($300K when new) was discovered in a chicken coop and restored with the help of the original designer. There is only one person on Earth who still refurbishes these tape heads, and he is retiring this year. The skills to read this data archive are on the cusp of disappearing forever.”

You don’t have to be NASA to have this sort of problem. I have a bunch of old “floppy disks” somewhere that have scans of family photos on them. I can’t read them right now, since none of my computers has a drive for those.

Here’s the thing, if you go up to the attic right now (or a basement or wherever else your parents or grandparents used to store stuff), if you come across an old box with slides (ideally Kodachromes) you won’t have any problems reading those. Just hold them against the light. But will your children be able to read your old hard drives - assuming that they will get stored in the attic and not get thrown out along with that old rickety computer?

Once you make the connection with family photographs you realize that while initially it’s a problem with the technology, it becomes much more than just that soon after.

Not that I want to be snarky, but it’s not such a silly assumption to say that at some stage all that’s going to be left of today’s fine-art photography is going to be tintypes of surfers (because the rest has faded/decayed). As a critic I find that thought very sad; as someone interested in cultural studies a bit, I find myself amused by the thought that future generations who might be unfamiliar with surfing might try to deduce some sort of religious meaning from those images of humans carrying those large things.

This is not to say that I think that contemporary fine-art photography is so precious that all of it needs to be around for another thousand years. I have some ideas of the kinds of images I’d like future generations to see (it’s not the surfers). Those images might or might not make what future generations see as the canon of photography - their equivalent of the collections of paintings we have in our museums. But whatever they will pick, I’d love for those future generations to actually have something to pick from.

For that to be the case, they will have to have something around. Everything that fades - even slowly - is problematic, as is anything printed on paper, because paper doesn’t tolerate humidity tremendously well (which is part of the reason why so many books from antiquity are simply gone).

So I’m tempted to suggest the photography equivalent of the ten thousand year clock, namely creating a library of images that will not suffer from all the problems I mentioned above. The idea of ten thousand years strikes me as slightly overblown, thinking about shorter time scales might not be such a bad idea. But it would have to be an actual library, or rather a storage space in a location that’s dry and protected (some desert probably, away from the coastlines that will probably get flooded as our planet is warming up), containing images on actual objects, using materials and technologies that won’t depend on too many restrictions.

Of course, you could argue that nothing lasts forever, and sure, photographs don’t take to the impact of a meteor so well. But that’s not my point. The point here is to identify a (or maybe two or three) ways to make photographic print(s) that are stable enough to last hundreds or years without requiring very specific conditions that might be outside of our control.

I also know that there exist a whole bunch of underground archives already. But the idea here is to create an archive that only relies on the longevity of the actual photographs - so ultimately, one could re-create the experience of going into the attic/basement and find those photos to look at.

A good and simple way to start would be to produce a small selection of well-known images from the Library of Congress (that avoids the copyright problems we have come to love so dearly). It’s conceivable that at later stages, the people behind the library might approach other photographers are produce copies of their work, for use in the project only (nothing would be sold and/or exhibited). Making a selection of images would introduce the human element - it’s not hard to imagine long debates about which images are “worthy” - but I have the feeling that problem can also be solved. And there are all kinds of issues beyond “Is this a good photo?” (which is, of course, impossible to solve). For example, there is the question of context: If we don’t know any of the context does the “meaning” of the photo change too much?

This all also points to why this archive would be different from the ones already in operation: We would have to figure out which photographic processes are most promising (probably having more than one would create a safety net of sorts if we’re wrong about one), and we’d have to talk about images themselves, what they mean, how they convey meaning, and which of our images do we want future generations to have.