The Digital Journalist

Bill Pierce
Nuts & Bolts

"The Test of Time"

Bill Pierce

According to many, the new millennium actually began on 01/01/01. How binary; how appropriate for the beginning of the digital age.

And only a few weeks later, George W. Bush was inaugurated President of the United States to, not only the sound of the clicking shutters of conventional cameras, but the soft plop of digital ones.

Digital has been around a long, long time in the transmission and printing of news pictures and a fair amount of time in the taking of news pictures. But here was a power display. If you weren't packing a digital camera, you certainly knew someone who walked back to his office, quickly computer-edited the pictures on his Flash Cards, and then transmitted his selects from the same computer. At least one of the agencies skipped the card route and connected the camera directly to editing and transmission facilities.

Here is a major photographic breakthrough - photographers actually editing their own work. And, if this were not enough - getting home in time for dinner. And yet, there were spoilsports who did not feel unalloyed joy.

Many of my friends were concerned with picture quality. It will be a long time before reasonably priced, compact digital cameras can take pictures that rival film cameras in their tonal range, sharpness in large prints, or high effective shutter speeds in low light. But, even if digital cameras never reach these goals, that doesn't dismiss them for serious journalistic work.

Here is an extremely small and very incomplete list of photojournalists of great accomplishment. Some of their pictures aren't as sharp, and or, do not have as full a range of tones as a successful dentist's vacation snaps: Paul Strand, Lewis Hine, Cartier Bresson, William Kline, Donald McCullin, Helen Levitt, Susan Meiselas, WeeGee, Penn, Elliot Erwitt, Walker Evans, and Robert Capa.

Here is a smaller, but less incomplete, list of serious photojournalists of great accomplishment, all of whose pictures are sharper than a successful dentist's vacation snaps.

No one.

But that misses the point.

The more important concern is the slow decay and eventual destruction of digital images that document our history. I don't care if they are a presidential inauguration or family snaps; they deserve to live.

Computers crash and storage mediums go south. Hardware and software become obsolete and disappear. History and your grandchildren deserve better.

There are some obvious solutions. Back up, and back up some more. Every once in a while back up your backups. CD's, Jaz and Zip discs don't last forever; and neither do hard drives. And pray that your file format doesn't become obsolete.

And most of all, make print-outs. Dark store some of them at reasonable temperature and humidity (no hot attics or damp basements). Pigment-based inks and specially prepared papers have a pretty good life expectation, and will probably get better in the future. In theory, someday you could produce a printout that had the same life expectancy as a conventional silver print.

Truth is, we all worry about our archives, take great care of our negatives, and are learning to care for our digital records. And nobody cares. There are photographers who died with brilliant images stored in negative form. Edward Weston and Gary Winogrand are the only two I know of who have had a significant body of their work printed after their death. For the rest of us, it's just the eternal toilet.

Nobody cares about your negatives or your digital files. They want to see the print. Go either film or digital, but make the most "archival" prints you can and store them well. You could also ask your employers to do the same. Otherwise, the George W. Bush presidency could begin to fade.

Bill Pierce

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