Photography Media Journal
ISSN 1918-8153

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Preservation of Photographic Materials

by: Tomasz Neugebauer

December 2005

page: 8 of 9

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The sensitivity of photographic materials to its environment, including exposure to light leads to recommendations for separate storage and access environments, and the practice of providing copies of originals for viewing and digitization. The scans of the William Henry Fox Talbot collection were done from reproductions (35mm Ektachrome slides done in 1996) because the originals could not be exposed to light even for a few hours (Birdsey 2000: 3). Digital reconstruction preserves the information and content, but does not save the original material (Ross 1996: 9). In fact, digitization and making the images available to the public can increase demand for originals.

Donald Ross describes how a trained conservationist ‘repairs’ surrogate digital images of daguerreotypes through manipulation techniques that remove dust spots, clear chemical fog, revitalize motion pictures frame by frame, and more (Ross 1996: 9). This raises problematic issues for authenticity of the digital surrogate as a ‘reproduction’ of the original. It is reassuring that this problem is recognized by some digitization projects: The Royal Photographic Society requested that commercial image editing software not be used to manipulate or edit the digital files because of concerns about differences in appearance of original material and digital reproduction (Birdsey 2000: 5).

Photographs are unique documents with both evidential and information value, and the effort being put into preserving these documents is well worth it in historical currency. The fast pace of technological progress has become a great challenge for archivists that must remain on guard against trends that promise to ‘capture’ information directly and completely into new and ‘permanent’ media. In terms of practical and technical preservation, the black & white negative is still “the most permanent storage media for photographic images” (McCutchen 2000: 20). Furthermore, there is also a fundamental difference of form between the physical originals and standardized digital captures. Lorraine O’Donnell argues that the debate within the context of Canadian total archives approach over the relative importance of “intellectual content of graphic records over their physical appearance or form” (O’Donnell 1994: 106-107) has not adequately dealt with the full variety of record forms (1994: 106). I believe that we will continue to re-examine and expand the concept of form in light of digital images.

There has not been enough discussion about what is lost in the process of digitizing original photographs. Since a photograph is more than image itself, digitization is indeed a translation and transformation of state rather than a “transliteration of tones” (Sassoon 1998: 9). We are being just as naïve about the neutral, transparent and unmediated nature of digitization as we once were about the exaggerated authenticity of the first daguerreotypes. In balance, however, digitization does offer archives a new means of providing access and additional preservation options for photographic documents, as long we do not digitize “at the expense of long term preservation of the provenance of the collection or the physical object from which the digital source originates” (Sassoon 1998: 13).

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