FIT TO PRINT
The looming crisis in digital imaging is that the last 15 years or so of documenting social history has not been committed to print. We’re doing more snapping than ever before, but it’s merely the moment that matters now and not what happens next. Probably millions of images currently existing on smartphones won’t survive beyond that device’s lifespan. The brief posting on Facebook, Instagram or whatever sharing platform is currently in fashion is the only requirement, and we move on. It’s not even about making prints at this point, it’s about actually bothering to move images off the smartphone into more permanent storage.
OK, so a fair proportion of these images probably aren’t worth saving, but a lot of them are visual records of a particular point in time… and history has already proved that snapshots can be a valuable historical record, far more so than a creative image that’s primarily an artistic statement more than anything else. The vast collection of photography held by the State Library Of NSW, for example, is largely made up of snapshots from the time when photography became accessible to the masses to the end of film. Nobody who simply stored all their old photographs in shoeboxes is likely to have thought they were building an archive which would have historical significance in the future, but that’s actually what was happening. Now those prints tells us, in broader terms, interesting things about fashion, architecture, technology, transport, social conventions and sporting activities. And, of course, they’re records of family occasions and outings, gatherings of friends and personal milestones… equally important if, down the track, somebody wants to document a family’s history. Unless somebody has been very diligent in their cataloguing and archiving of digital images over the last decade (and into the future), these sorts of pictures will be hard to find, if they still exist at all.
In the ‘old days’ of film processing every frame got printed, but now we’re very selective about whether an image is ‘worthy’ of being made into a print… probably because we rarely think of anything smaller than A4 size. This means that even at the enthusiast level, very few images are being printed and, I’m prepared to bet, virtually no family-type pictures beyond perhaps weddings and the ‘big 0’ birthdays. My wife is the social photographer in our household and there’s a neat line of photo albums dating from the early 1990s to 2012… then nothing. Even when she switched to a digital compact, she still diligently copied the files to a DVD and had the local minilab make sets of prints. So what happened after 2012? The smartphone, that’s what (and, perhaps not so coincidentally, the minilab closed its doors shortly after). There hasn’t been a print made since, not just because the files are titchy, but because I’m not sure we know where they are. Apple, in particular, makes the process of transferring images between devices so illogical – even in these days of cloud storage – that nobody can be bothered. Yet those albums – and even ones from further back – are often pulled out to recall an event, confirm a detail that’s been long forgotten or irrefutably solve an argument. There’s a tangible pleasure in looking at old prints and it’s all to do with memories… many a dinner party has gone on long into the night as albums are pored over and you’re instantly transported back to that party, holiday or special event. And the medium itself helps here… prints are easy to look at in any lighting, and you can have multiple prints being handed around at any time so everybody is involved and there’s no need to wait until the device gets to you, the screen has gone blank and its owner has to come and help you find the folder again… talk about killing the moment.
We need to get back into the habit of making prints just for the fun of it. You don’t have to do it yourself either… it’s still easy to find a camera store that can print from a DVD or memory card, or has a self-service kiosk where you can create your own orders. However, it’s much more fun to do it yourself and, I must confess, until recently I hadn’t printed anything for quite a while, but on a whim decided to make a few A4 prints from a recent trip to Italy. And I was hooked again. Nothing beats a good print, even at ‘only’ A4 size – there’s a lot more to see, people take more notice of the content, and there’s no better conversation starter. A friend of mine prints out all his shots on postcard-size paper so he can give them away to anybody who likes the image… and it’s led to orders for bigger editions. Commercial sales, that is.
Making a print is part of making a photograph, and it’s certainly part of ensuring its preservation. If you thought the picture was worth taking in the first place, then it’s worth printing.