Thoughts on Our Photographic Archives- #2

I'm certainly not the first person to wonder how the unimaginably vast archive of digital photographs currently being generated will be preserved into the future. The issue of preserving photographs has been with us since photography first appeared on the scene in 1839. But the issue of archiving became more pressing once George Eastman invented roll film in the late 19th century and people could take many pictures in a relatively short space of time. The advent of the snapshot meant that people started generating many prints of family outings and events. These prints were sometimes put into albums, but often just relegated to some shoebox, unlabeled and forgotten until the family either moved or the house was cleaned out.

Back in 1978, author John D. MacDonald wrote a novel titled "The Empty Copper Sea", in which the following passage appeared:

"Long ago a picture must have been an event. Capturing a living image has become too ordinary a miracle, perhaps. They go about with their automatic-drive Nikons and OM-2's and their Leicaflexes, and put their finger on the button, and the hand-held machinery makes a noise like a big toy cricket. Reep, reep, reep, reep. A billion billion slides, projected once, labeled, and filed forever. Windrows of empty yellow boxes blow across the Gobi, the Peruvian highlands, the temple steps at Chichicastenango. The clicking and whirring and clacking is the background sound at the Acropolis, at the beach at Cannes, on the slopes at Ville-franche. All the bright people, stopped in the midst of life, looking with forced fading as the years pass, caught there in slide trays, stack loads, view cubes, until one day the camera person dies and the grandchild says: "Mom, I don't know any of these people. Or where these were taken even. There are jillions of them here in this big box and more in the closet. What will I do with them anyway?"

"Throw them out, dear."

Prior to the digital age, pictures were physical things, objects one could hold on one's hand. Now, most people don't make prints and our visual histories are more ephemeral and at risk than ever. Just as historians worry about the future of the written record, so also should we be concerned about the future of our visual records. If the entire visual history of an individual exists purely digitally, what are the chances that those images will exist 100 years from now, or even 20? And what will be lost if they are lost?