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Archiving Digital Photography (Part 4) Vulnerability and your strategy

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per·ma·nent (pûrme-nent)

1. Lasting or remaining without essential change: “the universal human yearning for something permanent, enduring, without shadow of change” (Willa Cather).

2. Continuing in the same state, or without any change that destroys form or character; remaining unaltered or unremoved; abiding; durable; fixed; stable; lasting; as, a permanent impression.

Eternity stands permanent and fixed. –Dryden.

Many people have different definitions of permanent. Permanent might mean anything from a few hours to a few millennia depending on what you’re talking about. If you’re a mason, your work is much more permanent than say an ice sculptor. But in the time span of a wedding that ice sculpture better be a permanent fixture or that lovely bride will definitely be looking to put some heads on a platter. When we are talking about photography the word permanent or archival means that we would at least like it to last throughout our lifetime or ideally for several lifetimes so our children and others can enjoy the images as they were originally intended.

Ideally when digital photographs are printed with quality materials and properly framed behind glass they will easily last several generations before they even begin to degrade. That’s if they are kept in a proper archival environment out of the sun. When we are discussing the subject of digital photography, permanent could technically mean forever if the process is done correctly. Unfortunately, our digital images have the potential to last forever but their vulnerability to outside influences, deterioration, technology changes and information loss poses a much greater threat. We’ll discuss these influences in detail in future discussions.

When working with digital files you’re lucky on one side of the coin. Digital files are electronic bits and bytes that never get old or deteriorate. They can’t be eaten by mold or slobbered on by your dog or ripped by a malicious child. Once they are properly placed on quality media the information will be stable for a long time and it has the potential to last forever. In the real world though the problem that we photographers face is not with the actual photographic data but everything else needed to store, access, preserve and present those digital images. Your storage media design, your equipment, and your environment play a much greater role in how long your bits and bytes will last than you think. Even if you take great strides to ensure that you buy the best media and the most expensive equipment there will always be trouble waiting around the bend.

Unlike printed photography that’s mostly affected by the material it’s printed on, sunlight, pollution, etc., digital photography faces many of these factors plus much greater enemies that are not as easy to escape or prevent. For example, always changing and complex computer viruses, storms and power surges, faulty or poorly manufactured equipment and media, changes in computer technology over time, plus a host of other threats. Even manufacturers of media will present claims of permanence and long-term sustainability but those claims only exist in a perfect world. In reality those claims are more marketing hype than fact. Companies are more interested in selling you their product than being properly concerned about your needs.

Given all these factors you need to concern yourself with several main issues. First you need to know the basic principles of saving and organizing your images. Second, you need to purchase quality storage media if you are interested in long term storage. Third, you need to consider your storage environment. Fourth you need a management plan to back-up data files that will provide for disaster recovery if the media fails or a computer crashes. Fifth, you’ll need to develop a plan for storage of back-up files off-site, to periodically check the integrity of the original and back-up files, and to plan for migration to new media as technology changes. There is one thing that I have come to know as fact in the digital world — the only thing constant is change. We’ll discuss these items in detail in the near future.

Recently the media and traditional photographers have chosen to attack digital photography as a unreliable media compared to traditional film photography. This is absolutely not true. Even though you have your photo negative and have a print made, your images are no less vulnerable to decay, fire, mother nature, the environment, and human error. The good thing about digital images is that they can be easily duplicated many times and stored off site. Imagine doing that with 20 years of traditional photographic work. It would not only be time consuming but it would be very expensive and the project would require much more physical space to accomplish. Traditional photographers seem to forget that even though their negatives might technically be much more stable than digital bits and bytes they are still threatened by fire, a devastating act of nature or a malicious ex-wife. You will be as they say… up the river without a paddle. In fact you’ll more likely be at the bottom of the ocean without a boat!

The thing to remember at this point is that preserving your digital images really comes down to one simple statement — “Don’t rely on technology and always plan for the worst.” If you keep this in the back of your head, study, stay up on technology and continue to work toward properly maintaining your beloved images you will be much better off in the end. Actually in the end, your photographic legacy will be extremely well off and preserved well beyond your lifetime.

Up Next: (Part 4) Saving your images and file formats

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