Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Save 35mm!

I had to put my old 35mm camera in for servicing today. The shutter fails at the higher speeds; and leaves a stripe of overexposed white on prints. I suppose this is fair enough, the camera is older than I am. Going into the camera shop got me thinking, though, as the shelves were stocked high with digital camera gear for Christmas, and the posters on the walls advertised strictly non-35mm formats of photography: how long does 35mm photography have to live?

I'm quite fond of film as a format. Not because it's cheap--it's certainly not cheap--or because it's easier or delivers better results. Digital technology is pretty cheap and pretty good these days.

Neither is there a specific advantage either way. From the historian's perspective there isn't really any format which is in itself better than any other--whether it's 35mm, 110, 120, large format or digital format. In the twentieth century photography has exploded as an art form, a technical process, a method of recordkeeping, and most of all as a central part of popular culture. Photography allows unskilled and untrained people to produce images which have meaning for them, and to share them with the people with whom they share meaning--friends, family, coworkers, comrades.

Now digital photography is well suited to an age in which people communicate through email and text message (and blog). People can send them back and forth and copy them infinitely, a great improvement on gelatin film, to be sure. The basic problem of digital photography is storage, though, and human habits of record-keeping: while gelatin negatives and prints can go in shoeboxes and albums and be kept indefinitely, digital images are only going last as long as their owners keep copying them from fashionable storage format to fashionable storage format.

How often do people these days refer to information they keep on 5 1/2 inch floppy disks? Yeah, that's right.

I suspect that digital photographs won't tend to be as suitable for long-term storage as they're not immediately accessible without some kind of viewing hardware. Once the hard disk space gets used, once the CD-Rs become obsolete, once there are no more kiosk memory card readers, once people's PCs die on that hot day in February without backups, digital photos of the past will be forgotten. It takes, by comparison, a specific and deliberate act of destruction to get rid of archived or albumed 35mm prints or negatives.

If you, my few readers, are not too dismissive, I'm starting here and now the campaign to save a format of photography. For the records, for the archives, for your family's albums;

Say it loud, say it proud;

Save 35mm!


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