Memory And The Medium

Memory is an odd process. Recollections can be triggered by a certain muscle movement, a dream, a flash of color or shape as we walk down the street, a shift in the wind or, more concretely, by a photographic image. In all, memory is an associative process, in that some catalyst seems to create a circuit in the mind that refers to something real, or imagined, in our past. We all value our memories, especially when it comes to family and friends. Thus, we all place high value on our photographs as one of the chief associative instigators we have in our lives, and anything that might jeopardize those memories is considered a threat to our true self, that bundle of memories that make up our lives.

From the letters we receive from readers, one of the main detriments folks see to digital is just that--that we have yet to be convinced that it's a reliable keeper of memories. Digital memories stored as bits and bytes are not, like a well-stored print or properly processed piece of film, hard-wired; they are virtual and sit on a medium that more often than not seems transitory. Many readers' letters rightly point to glass negatives, tintypes, and old prints as reliable storehouses of memory. In truth, the advent of color film, and the dyes of which it and its prints are composed, made our photographic memories less stable. It took years for the photographic industry to first own up to, and then do something about creating more stable color images. Long touted as the most stable medium, Kodachrome is one of the few film-based color products that keeps an image today as well as it did in the 1950s. You can't say that for many color prints and certainly not for the old chrome films.

Perhaps it will take just as much time for the digital industry to own up to and do something about the reliability of the bits and bytes on which many of the memories we create today reside. For now, perhaps, as has been suggested by more than one industry spokesman, we might better rely on making prints to make sure certain those memories stand the test of time. But then, questions about paper and ink combinations come into play, and believe it or not there's still a debate about just whose digital print testing method is reliable and whether one can fully trust the numbers that are bandied about.

We certainly don't have the answers; all we can do is raise the issues and keep emphasizing them in the hopes that more work will be done to respect the wishes of all for a reliable medium for our memories. Like most other folks we are very excited about the prospects digital holds for our creative photographic endeavors. Like hedonists enjoying the feast, however, we might be forgetting the long-term effects of our diet. But having been around the block a few times, and having photographed long enough to know that some film images from a mere 30 years back have undergone the big fade, we want to be certain that this new medium will become and remain a reliable repository of our creative, social, and business lives.

That, to me, seems to be what most concerns photographers about digital today. It's not that the medium doesn't offer very exciting possibilities and, to my mind, open up a whole new creative process to all who get involved. It's that we need standards, truth in advertising, and a concerted effort by the industry touting the medium that everything is being done to create a viable medium that will not be lost to us later in our own lives, and to generations ahead. Some of the responsibility, as it did and does with film and prints, sits with each photographer, but some also sits with the industry itself. If all is well that's great, but from letters we get from readers it seems to me that that message simply hasn't gotten across.