IT'S A little tough to write down here in the bunker, especially with my two cats running the treadmill that powers my computer. Hoarding water wasn't so bad -- at least we can sleep on the plastic jugs and pretend it's a water bed.
It's the six-month supply of toilet paper that takes up the room.
Okay, so I'm not taking Y2K that seriously. At least I'm hoping -- fervently -- that all the doomsaying about millennial computer breakdowns will turn into the biggest non-story of the century once clocks strike 12 all over the world Jan. 1.
Still, our reliance on computers as we move into a new century is unquestioned -- both heartening and unsettling. Even in photography.
Why? One reason came to me over lunch a few days ago with a group of folks from Fuji. As we talked about new products and films -- most of which you'll see reviewed here in coming months -- the talk turned to storing and retrieving images. Back in the "old" days, when photography was all "silver-based" (i.e. recorded on film), "storing" images meant keeping slides or negatives in archival sleeves and making sure that paper copies of the images -- prints -- also were kept safely, usually in archival, acid-free storage boxes.
"Retrieving" the images meant just that: in effect, taking them down from the shelf.
It was a system that worked fine almost from the invention of photography itself.
Now, though, storage and retrieval have taken on a whole new meaning. The digital cameras that I soon will acquire for testing and review can store literally hundreds of images electronically. And retrieval of these images can be as quick as the push of a button on either my camera or PC.
But the ease with which images can be created is matched by the ease with which they can be destroyed, i.e. deleted. How many of us have pressed the wrong button on our keyboards and vaporized information we worked long and hard either to create or download? I certainly have.
Carol Smith, Fuji's senior manger for corporate communications, raised an intriguing question: "If Dorothea Lange had been working digitally, would we still be able to retrieve her images?"
The problem, Carol noted, was twofold. First, many news photographers today who work digitally simply transmit their pictures instantly over phone lines (admittedly a communications miracle), then erase the images from their disks so that they can quickly go back to work with a clean "cartridge" -- the electronic equivalent of a new roll of film. Unless the picture desk archives the photographer's images (and often that means only those images chosen for publication), the photographer's work will be recorded only in the next day's paper -- hardly anyone's idea of permanence.
The second side of this problem is even more vexing, especially as the new century takes us into seemingly faster and faster technological changes.
Who is to say that digital images carefully stored on disks today will even be retrievable on PCs or Macs yet to be designed? Think of having your entire portfolio [or, for that matter, your favorite vacation snaps] on the photographic equivalent of an 8-track audiotape and you'll get what I mean.
Dorothea Lange, the great Life magazine photographer of the 1930s and '40s, is immortal today precisely because her images have outlived her -- on gloriously old-fashioned black-and-white negatives that anyone with an enlarger and three trays of photo chemicals can print.
By contrast, even as I write this on my new laptop, my ancient PowerBook, containing more than five years worth of columns on its hard drive, has become little more than a bookend, the diskettes it produces incompatible with most new computers.
Is it any wonder I still enjoy writing with a fountain pen?
As the final hours of the 20th century dwindle down to a precious few, it's heartening to learn of one way that photographs are being archived that seems to combine the best of the ancient, silver-based past with the digital future. A number of online photography agencies, among them the Washington-based PhotoAssist (202/244-2644), are preparing to offer for sale archival digital Iris prints of classic modern and vintage images, created from original negatives or photographic prints.
Iris prints are made when original images are scanned electronically and reproduced with startling accuracy on archival watercolor paper with permanent inks.
In a way it is ironic that state-of-the-art electronics are laboring mightily to produce just what folks like Alfred Stieglitz created almost a century ago: photographs on paper that will stand the test of time -- even into the century after the one being born this weekend.
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