Saving Images When Disaster Strikes

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Thursday, November 17, 2005; 5:35 PM

It is a cliché now, in the aftermath of any natural disaster, to read of devastated people searching through the ruin of their lives for photographs -- for the family albums, or even shoeboxes of snapshots--that will tie them inexorably to an earlier, better time.

The devastation of so many recent disasters, hurricanes Katrina and Rita being only the most notable to Americans, brings home the fact that even the most seemingly impregnable buildings and places often are merely temporary.

Only memories are forever. But how best to preserve them? And how best to protect them before, disaster strikes?

Here, I am a troglodyte: I am glad that the bulk of the photographic work about which I really care is on photographic film--not on CDs, flash cards or hard drives. Make no mistake: I use digital almost every time I go out shooting commercially. (But when I am working on my books, it's me and my film-eating Leicas, Holgas, Hassys and Nikons and the hell with anything digital.)

For years I have told my classes or the audiences I lecture that, if I wanted to and if I had access to them, I could print all of Mathew Brady's, or Edward Curtis' glass plate negatives in my basement darkroom in Washington, with no need to re-tool or do anything out of the ordinary.

I make this point to note the transitory nature of most of today's digital technology, especially its image storage capability. My biggest beef is that, unless one were to keep transferring one's thousands of images onto the next new medium, one runs the very real risk of having all of one's photographs captured on media no one can open. (Think 8 track tapes versus cassettes; think cassettes versus CDs; think Beta versus VHS; think VHS versus...well, hell, you get the idea.)

But this argument at least assumed that that the previous medium would be useful during its (all too brief) run of technological primacy. Now I am not so sure. From my own talks this year with conservators at the Library of Congress, I am not nearly as confident as I had been about the archival stability of the CDs on which I happily have been storing my digital wedding photos, as well as other commercial images. [And this says nothing about computers themselves. Anyone who uses them regularly has his or her own horror stories about hard drives crashing and burning, taking all their contents with them.]

The simple fact, I was told at the LOC, is that most commercially available CDs are mediocre at best in terms of longevity -- the only CDs actually worth a damn being those old gold Photo CDs that languished on shelves because no one would by them for a buck apiece. [For this reason, I was informed that there is a move afoot to offer a kind of government-backed Good Housekeeping Seal to CDs that meet minimum archival standards. But that's in the future, the experts said, and until then it's all pretty much a crapshoot.]

To the digitally committed, the apparent solution is to store precious data, including photographs, in a number of different electronic hideyholes, the better to beat the odds if one system fails or when everything hits the fan. While in theory storing data in different places -- especially, say, on a server that is in another city or a different part of the country -- is a good idea, the simple fact is that actually doing this can be a monumental pain in the butt.

But with digital photography I can think of no other viable solution. Remember: we are not talking merely about image degradation caused by magnetic fields or by sloppy CD construction. We are talking, in the worst case (which is to say Katrina-like devastation) about water and mud and slime and gook and God knows what else seeping into every crevice of your professional and personal life: into every jewel case, every one of the tiny holes in precious image-laden CF cards, every external hard drive, every monitor. We are not just talking about damp laptops; we are talking about submerged houses.

You ever try to dry out a soaked CF card? CD? Computer???

At the risk of oversimplifying, I submit that, faced with the awful prospect of having my house flooded by a wall of water and mud, I would rather have my images stored on silver-based acetate or genuine photographic paper than on electronic media. And lest you think I am totally the troglodyte, withhold judgment until the end; there IS a role for digital to play in my own worst-case scenario.

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