The Digital Journalist
Nuts & Bolts

by Bill Pierce

Wildfires are burning in Southern California, and you can smell the smoke if you are sitting in my home office. The house shares a boundary line with a very large stretch of wooded and wild parkland. But one of the prices we pay for bucolic splendor is the real possibility of fire.

The good news: I'm in the New York apartment. The bad news: a lot of negs, slides, digital records, prints and, most importantly, the dogs are in California. The good news: thanks to digital technology, there are digital duplicates of a great deal of the material in locations other than my home. And thanks to the dog sitter, the dogs will be in other locations if necessary.

Like most photographers, originally most of my digital images were stored on CD. It was easy to duplicate them, produce a backup set and store it at a different location. Still, the fact that it was easy didn't get me off my tail. By the time my guilt moved me to action, there were enough CDs that it took a long, long time to duplicate them, move the duplicates to another location and develop a filing system that would let me know what pictures were on one of those shiny, but enigmatic, silver discs. So many discs; so little time.

The fact that the CDs were not permanent and I would do this again (and again) led me to find, if not a better way, a quicker way to back up images - three 250-gigabyte hard discs. One of those, permanently attached to my computer, holds all my digital images and scans of film images (also my tax records and a few other important records). The second is a duplicate of that disc. All hard discs can fail eventually. When one of these two discs fail, it will be placed in the trash and another duplicate will be copied from the survivor.

The third also duplicates the first disc but adds everything on the hard disc built into the computer. That third disc is stored at a friend's house and comes back to my place every month for an update.

It's no problem archiving a digital image on a hard disc. But be advised, it isn't like a silver negative file - one image, one negative. With the digital image there's the raw image. And then there's the 16 bit tiff. And then there's the 16 bit tiff that got all the Photoshop work done on it. Then there's the BIG JPG you sent the client and the teeny-weeny little jpg you e-mailed.

However you choose to organize these files, chances are, as the files grow over time, the way you choose to organize them will change. And here is one of the most important advantages of the files on a hard disc over the files on the CD - you can take the files on the hard disc and move them, erase them, add to them and reorganize them.

More and more, wet darkrooms for prints are disappearing. Old and new film images are being scanned and printed digitally. This makes it easier than ever to store the original film images safely (rather than in your darkroom) while you store the scans of them as you store any digital file.

Most of my friends store their valuable film images in a safe deposit box. Actually, the typical setup would be two large safe deposit boxes. Remember, for us old dudes, most of our lives are on those sleeves of negatives and sheets of slides. Right now, mine are stored in two fire-resistant safes in my home because I'm in the process of making high-quality scans of them. I started this project a long time ago, but scanners kept getting better.

A year or two ago, the CCD scanners peaked or, at least, arrived at a level where my images, not the scanners, were the weak link. And I started the big archive project over again. The scanners are better, and I know how to use them a little better. Over time there will be multiple digital archives of my past sins, and safe storage will be no problem. I may even keep the original negatives and slides at my house, albeit in the fire-resistant safes.

Of course, all of this may be just an example of photo ego. Does anybody outside of your agency, you or the folks who want to publish your images care about your tiff or jpg files? Probably not. But those digital files are the source for something that is of interest to a broad audience: prints.

It really doesn't matter whether it's your family, your friends, a private collector, a museum, a university or a gallery - they want prints. The great thing about ink jet prints from digital files is that not only can you do them yourself, you can set the printer to make identical multiple prints while you are eating lunch.

That means it's easy to produce enough identical prints so that identical prints of your better pictures can be kept at more than one location.

Of course this can be done with wet darkroom prints from film sources, too. It's just that it is far more time-consuming and labor-intensive. And the papers and surfaces don't match the prints made from a digital original on an ink jet printer when you exhibit them together.

Whatever route you go, sign the prints. I used to think that it might matter to galleries or museums, but having a signed print wasn't as important to my friends as having a good photograph. Wrong. Five or 10 years ago friends (many of them photographers) started looking at gift prints and saying, "Wait, you didn't sign this."

On my walls are pictures that were gifts from friends; they are signed. On my walls are pictures I bought for a few hundred dollars; they are signed. Today, similar signed prints are selling for thousands, in part because they are signed. Occasionally I will give my wife an unsigned print of the dogs or grandchildren for her office. She's beginning to look at me with a raised eyebrow when I do. I don't begin to understand the world of art. But, apparently, photography is an art. And, you have to sign your pictures. It's sort of like the dogs marking their turf on their morning walk.

Two gentleman were arguing about the need for artists to sign their work. The proponent of unsigned art said, "Did God sign rocks?" His partner replied, "Read the part about the Ten Commandments."

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer