Ones and Zeros

As I have mentioned on this blog a few times I run a digital imaging studio at a well known Ivy League University in New York. I am responsible for keeping up with the latest in digital imaging technology as it relates to cultural heritage institutions and preservation. The lab I run creates thousands of digital image files each year. Despite all this I have always had a slight unease about digital images. They are not physical entities. They are just bits of code embedded on an SD card or a hard drive.

This morning I was on the train reading the latest issue of Aperture when I came across this statement in an interview conducted by Simon Norfolk with Anne W. Tucker and her collaborators on the project WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY;

“And of course for this project we could only pick from what we could actually get a hold of. You might find an amazing image on Google but that doesn’t mean you can find a print of it in real life.”

So in some ways digital images don’t really exist, or they do in that quantum mechanical way of existing only when somebody is looking at the image on some sort of monitor. Turn the monitor off and it reverts back to particles of ones and zeros. Does a digital image really exist if the ones and zeros are stuck on a zip disk (remember those) that can no longer be read? I actually have a stack of those disks at home that contain early digital photographs of my family. One of those sets of ones and zeros was printed out and now hangs on the wall of my brother’s apartment. Every time I visit and  see that photograph on the wall of my then 5 year old daughter holding and smiling at her newborn baby brother I always get the feeling that something is askew in the realm of digital photography.

Unlike images captured on film which can be stored away in boxes for hundreds of years, a digital image file must always be looked after like a pet dog. You have to name the file, create descriptive metadata, track them and also migrate the files to ever changing storage media (zip disk, to CD to DVD to hard drives to server storage…). It is necessary because you can’t hold a digital image file in your hands, it’s not physical. It’s just a set of instructions in code!

What I am trying to get across I guess is the ephemeral nature of digital image files. What does it mean for all of those digital image files on flickr or tumblr (and similar)? What happens if the owners of the files never print them out and do not shepherd the files on to newer and newer storage or display platforms? A generations worth of snapshots can potentially evaporate – poof! A great loss to future historians and future artists who work with found photographs.

Hmm, I suddenly have a desire to put away my Nikon D700 and pull out my trusty Leica M7!

I once, very brashly wrote in an essay in my application to graduate school that I do not believe in printing photographs as a matter of routine. There were many alternatives to the print in this day and age; web, tablets, DIY Books, e-books, e-portfolios. My application was rejected. I am starting to think that as an artist you do need to create something concrete, something you can touch and see and feel without the need for any electronic intervention. So even though I will probably still shoot some of my personal work with a digital camera I will definitely invest more time in creating prints or books of the works I think I want to leave behind as a legacy to my children.

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