Thrown Your Pictures in
a Hole in the Ground
Musings on archiving
and picture technology

by Greg Mironchuk

From The New York Times - April 15, 2001 "A Century's Photo History Destined for Life in a Mine By SARAH BOXER The Bettmann archive, the quirky cache of pictures that Otto Bettmann sneaked out of Nazi Germany in two steamer trunks in 1935 and then built into an enormous collection of historical importance, will be sunk 220 feet down in a limestone mine situated 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where it will be far from the reach of historians."

Corbis, the current owner of The Bettman Archive, which bought the entire back-stock catalogue of photographs from United Press International in the mid-eighties, is transferring the United States' largest archive of photographs from New York City to a secure and environmentally controlled underground facility in Pennsylvania.

It has "shut off" access to these files to archivists, picture editors, and photo researchers, save for the approximately 2% of the images which have already been scanned into Corbis' Electronic Database.

While this move is heralded by some as a neccessity to preserve the old, old film and prints, which have had little or no attention paid to their "archivability" in the decades that they have been in Bettman's New York offices... many are suspicious about the motives of Bill Gates... founder of Microsoft Corporation, and the sole owner of Corbis.

Is this an altruistic attempt to preserve the photographic history of The Modern World? Or is it a ploy to drive up the leasing price of images that Corbis has, itself, de-valued with its ill-conceived business and marketing plan?

In either case (and I have some VERY strong opinions as to which is the most signifigant factor in Gates' thinking), the subject of photographic archiving and the technologic evolution of News Photography, has come to the forefront of many photographer's, and photo editor's thinking...

To be perfectly honest... in this correspondent's most humble opinion... preservation, "archivability", and "quality" are no longer a concern to anyone, except to a few scattered guys like me.

To understand what I mean, it is neccessary to go back in time, and see HOW the business has become what it is, today.

In the mid 80's, a guy named Bob Caspe, and an AP photo staffer (with an engineering degree from MIT) named David Tennenbaum invented the portable negative scanner. It was a big thing, housed in an aluminum Halliburton suitcase... but it allowed transmission of pictures from scanned negatives from "The Road"... stadiums, political conventions, hotel rooms. Photographers were no longer tied to getting film into a bureau, or their own newspaper.

Soon, the Leaf Scanner (as it was known, produced by Caspe's company, Leaf Systems) could scan color, and... at about that time, large retailers were pressuring newspapers to print color, so that they might run color ads for Christmas and Mother's Day.

Since the AP Daily Photo Wire was putting out a lot of color photos, and since newspapers wanted color content to guide readers to the ads... color photography in newspapers was off and running... so they all got scanners, and all started shooting color.

Scanners got smaller and faster, and photographers discovered that they didn't have to shoot slide film (slow, very finicky about exposure, and contrasty) to get color pictures. They could shoot the same film that Mom and Uncle Fred used in their cameras... Kodacolor color negative film. It came in 100 and 400 speed "flavors", was low in contrast, was very forgiving about exposure, and was easy to develop.

In about a year, pretty near ALL daily, and larger weekly 'papers... and all three major wire services... were shooting color negative film, exclusively. Then, there came... from the Far East... Fuji Film, with a superior product to Kodak's, and flavors of film with astronomical ASA speeds, 800 and 1600.

It was now faster, easier, and cheaper to use color negative film, rather than Black & White... and color pictures were All The Rage.

What's wrong with this picture?

What's wrong is... that the image on a color negative is made up entirely of DYE. Dye starts to deteriorate and evaporate, almost immediately. Black & White images are made up of metallic silver, and can last as long as the gelatin, that they are suspended in, will last.

So... we came to live in an age wherin virtually NONE of the newspictures (darned near everything in the 90's) will last 50 years, as Robert Capa's photo of the Normandy Beach Landing has (first published in LIFE, and 50 years later on the cover of Newsweek).

Worse yet... NOBODY CARES. I prefer to shoot B&W, because I'm an Old Fart, and I like it, and I'd like to leave my negatives to my son, to make some money off of, when I'm gone... but I can't sell a B&W picture to a newspaper or magazine to save my life. They Just Don't Want 'Em. To make a living, I pretty much HAVE to use film that will deteriorate as soon as I pull it out of the washwater.

Now... in the present... at most publications and at all the major wires, cameras shooting color film have been replaced by digital cameras, wherin images are recorded as ephemeral electron scatter on a "media card", and the image is then translated into something viewable via a computer.

What's wrong with THIS picture?

Most images are magnetically recorded and saved onto disks, and hard drives. These recordings are sensitive to magnetic fields, and, while your computer is "on", the stuff on your drives is actively held in a field by the computer... if the power suddenly goes... so do the images.

Literally... guy bopping by a workstation with a sufficiently large Boom Box, or a nearby lightning strike, or a California Brownout can wipe ALL the images archived on a computer, or disk... and there's no "hard copy"... nothing to go back to, to get those images from.

Some images are archived to Compact Disks... but not all CD readers can read the writing of all CD writers... there are four generally used formats, and not all of them are readable in a "standard" CD player. Worse than that, in two or three years, DVD readers will have largely replaced CD readers in computers, and there will be MORE incompatability... and, who is to say that the SOFTWARE that we are using to make these images will last for any length of time?

There are a LOT of images that were "processed" on PhotoShop version 2.5 that are unreadable by people using PhotoShop version 6,0... and it appears that it will likely come to pass that PhotoShop v. 7++ won't read PhotoShop v. 3.0... there are a boatload of v. 3.0 PShop images, "out there" (and quite a few "in here", in the very Macintosh PowerBook that I am writing this on).

Sooooo... the photographic archiving picture is pretty dreadful.

What to do? One of the things that my company, PictureDesk International, is exploring is the archiving of digital image files on central Internet Servers. The theory is that BROWSERS... Netscape and Internet Explorer... are unlikely to change as radically as PhotoShop surely will... which means that access to the stored images is guaranteed (as well as anything can be) for a reasonably long time.

Quality is also an issue ... the overall quality of digital is "good enough"... but is "good enough" always Good Enough?

There are VERY expensive digital outfits that can surpass film in quality... but these are large-format devices, suitable only to Studio Work. The "35mm" digital cameras work OK for MOST things... but, at this year's Boston Marathon, the finish line pictures were shot... by The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and AP photographers... on FILM. Why? Because the line is always strongly backlit, and is difficult to photograph on all but drearily overcast days.

Last year, Boston Globe Photographer John Bohn ate everyone's lunch at The Marathon Finishline, because he was the ONLY film shooter in that place, at that time. All the digital photos from The Finish Line stunk. His were super.

Digital is "iffy" in the dark, and "iffy" with a strong light within the image area. The need to moderate contrast has led to most shooters "filling in" the photos with a wink of flash from the camera. This is nice, but leads to all the photos from all the digital photographers looking the same... all autofocus, all 17-35, all "strobe on a rope" high and to the left...

And... nothing is ever really sharp.

Newspictures now generally no longer exist as a "hard" negative or print... they exist as halftone seperations in USA Today, or in TIME, The Weekly News Magazine.

The sharpness of the image is is now determined by the printing screen in the publication... or by a 200 pixels-per-inch standard for newspaper images, a 300 pixels-per-inch standard for glossy-paper magazine images, or the 72 dpi monitors that we view the images on. Absolute Sharpness no longer has any relevence to a News Photographer.

Is this Good News, or is it Bad News?

As a photographer, I am primarily a documentarian, and a storyteller. I require every bit of detail that I can capture, and cram into a frame, to tell something about who or what is being photographed. The disappearence of Absolute Sharpness is a concern to me.

However, I am also an Old, Semi-Blind, Shakey guy.

I probably shouldn't complain....

Greg Mironchuk