Photos & Memories

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A short while before she was heading to Orlando, my girlfriend asked me to scan the photos in her old photo album and in a box. No doubt worn out after a week of preparing to move and dealing with her ongoing dissertation study, she said that she was tired of carting the photos about and wanted to toss them after I had scanned them.

While this might not seem like a matter fit for philosophy, it did get me thinking about the exploitation of male labor by the female oppressors. I mean, it got me thinking about the preservation of photos and whether there would be any meaningful difference between the original photos (which are pre-digital) and the digital copies.

The easy and obvious answer would seem to be that there would be no meaningful difference. After all, a photo is just an image and the scanning would duplicate that image. In fact, the scan would be better than the original. Not only could the scanned image be backed up against loss and printed as needed, it could also be color corrected and otherwise improved relative to the original. Also, a photo created from a negative is already a copy (of sorts) and hence any concern about one being an original and one being a copy can apparently be set aside. That said, it would seem to be worth looking a little deeper.

Before looking a bit deeper, I believe I am obligated to present a possible biasing factor. Being a person of moderate age, I grew up long before digital cameras and have a certain nostalgic attachment to physical photos. However, I do not even own a film camera anymore and have been doing digital photography since the late 1990s. As such, I think that I can restrain my bias and look at the matter with some objectivity. Or perhaps not-the ways of one’s youth can be hard to shake.

While an non-digital photograph is but an image of an event that was most likely created from a negative (with the obvious exception of the Polaroid), it can be argued that a photograph can become an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia. This, perhaps, makes it more than just a mere surface image that can be copied by scanning. Rather, it is an item that is imbued in a way that makes its physical composition an important part of what it is. Since this component cannot be replicated by scanning, to scan a photo and discard it would be more than merely discarding a redundant image, but throwing away a vessel of memory, a vehicle of history, a bearer of nostalgia.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine if someone wanted to scan historical documents and throw away the originals to save space and weight. While the images would be preserved, a significant part of the history would be lost. To use another obvious analogy, consider the distinction between an  historical item, such as a coin or sword, and a modern replica. While the replica might look exactly like the original (and might even be “better”), it would seem to be lacking in important ways.

Of course, it can be argued that while historical artifacts have a value in terms of historical research, the main value of old items comes from the fact that we value them. Take, for example, a fading childhood photo. While it has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object: a photo has sentimental value because I value it. Perhaps they are not even that-after all, a person could certainly be duped into thinking that a photo is the original one, even though it was replaced with a new print modified to look old. Perhaps someone damaged the photo and wanted to replace it without the person knowing-perhaps as a perceived kindness or to avoid the fruits of anger. The person would feel that sentiment, but would, of course, be in error. It would be like a person thinking she was seeing the person she loves, but was actually seeing his twin. Until she became aware of her error, she would feel that love. Likewise, a person would feel the same way about the photo, at least until she was aware it was not the original.

Or perhaps she would still feel the same way. After all, perhaps it is the case that the value attached to the image is based on the image rather than the object. So, for example, a scanned copy of an old photograph would create the same feelings and stand in the same relationships as the original in terms of the value placed upon it. If so, then being rid of the old photos would be no loss at all.

In my own case, my emotional view is that it would make a difference. While the image is an important aspect of the photo, the physical photo also has a value as an object connected to the past. Of course, this feeling is just a feeling and could merely be the result of my pre-digital youth. I also feel the same way about hand written letters, but that perhaps says more about my age than about the world.

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  1. How about autographs: if you have a piece of paper signed by the very hand of some dignitary, is a scan of the signature just as good? (If so, why can certain autographs have a marketable value and be considered collectable? If not, are non-digital photographs relevantly different? How about the negatives created within the camera itself at the moment the picture was taken?)

  2. I think that sometimes we can value the physical over the digital even if the physical form itself has absolutely no special meaning to us. Like as it is a different feeling to read a digital or a physical book. It doesn’t even have to do with the image (book) itself. Probably more to us being physical, biological beings.

  3. What we can see (or what we choose to see)varies over time, in an individual’s life and in history. A medieval believer might not have seen significant differences between two paintings of the Madonna, differences now seen as of tremendous importance. Digital effects in films which looked uncannily realistic ten years, now look obviously crude. In five or ten years the differences between the digital and chemical images may seem very striking, and the loss of the latter very sad.

  4. think there are two viewpoints here. They are 1/ Practical and 2/ Emotional.
    So far as the practical is concerned the original prints are important historical primary sources of information. In that connection, the longer they are preserved the greater their value. Your girl friend’s grandchildren for instance, could well be intrigued by what will be to them, a primitive process of image making in respect of their grandparent This of course is connected with the emotional aspect. I have many prints of myself as a child most of them I have scanned and given them the usual photo imaging enhancement, it is amazing what detail those old cameras could capture. That said though, the digital images are not the originals. The film was shot, then taken by one of my parents to a chemist shop (drug store I believe in USA) for development and printing. Thus the originals in my possession were actually handled by my parents and doubtless by other members of the family and likely myself as a young child. I have prints of my grandparents and parents from all of which I have created digital images. The thought that I would now destroy the originals is something akin to sacrilege. As Robert Seddon has pointed out the negatives if available, are even more intimately connected, being a part of the actual event which occurred many years ago.
    Were it my girl friend I would advise her to keep the originals or deposit them with a trusted family member or friend. If she destroys them she will regret it “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.” (cf Film: Casablanca).

  5. Photos are a reproducible medium and as such, preservation of the image, especially in the case of old family photos, is important (to me). The original prints are simply artifacts that have suffered deterioration over the years.

    How you preserve the originals is even more important. If the photos are precious there’s no reason not to keep the originals after scanning and making archival prints.

    I think the real key is to be selective and preserve the best while discarding the rest.

    It’s a bit different with original drawings, paintings, etc.

  6. Digital pictures do not replace photographs made out of light sensitive materials.

    There is a deep and somewhat abstract philosophical reason for not looking at digital pictures but rather seeking out actual photographs. It is the same reason for preferring photographs over paintings, drawings, and print-outs of one kind or another. All those non-photographs are assembled piecemeal by a mark maker working according to coded instructions. Instruction sets may be entirely or partially synthetic and their relationship to the subject matter of the picture is in the nature of description or testimony. We believe the picture only if we believe the picture maker.

    There is a very small set of alternative image making processes that do not use coded instructions. These include life casts, death masks, brass rubbings, coal peels, wax impressions, and photographs made of light sensitive materials. In every case the relationship between picture and subject is direct and in the nature of physical evidence rather than testimony.

    I believe photographs, the real ones, the ones generated by light changing a sensitive surface, because I believe the laws of laws of chemistry and physics. Testimony doesn’t come into it. And of course none of this well founded belief in original photographs grants me leave to be foolish or simple minded about what I think I see when looking at them.

  7. “These include life casts, death masks, brass rubbings, coal peels, wax impressions, and photographs made of light sensitive materials.”

    But in the case of “photographs made of light sensitive materials”, the image has to be revealed through the process of development. That process itself is subject to manipulation; both when going from an undeveloped negative to a developed negative and when going from negative to print.

    Most of the “prints” that people are talking about here were made from negatives, so there are two stages of “development” between the initial exposure and the final print. In fact, we still use the terms “burning” and “dodging” for manipulating digital images derived from the days when people used physical processes to influence the appearance of the print.

    The actual relationship between the “picture and subject” was less direct than is perhaps supposed and more interpretive than pure “physical evidence” would suggest.

  8. Quote Maris:“These include life casts, death masks, brass rubbings, coal peels, wax impressions, and photographs made of light sensitive materials.”Unquote.

    Quote Keith:”But in the case of “photographs made of light sensitive materials”, the image has to be revealed through the process of development. That process itself is subject to manipulation; both when going from an undeveloped negative to a developed negative and when going from negative to print”.Unquote

    A perceptive point! Development reveals the photograph it but does not fabricate its content. The “reveal” is analogous to entering a darkened gallery, turning on the lights, and seeing paintings. The light-switch did not cause the paintings to come into being. Different lights, fluorescent, tungsten, daylight, can make the paintings look different but they are the same paintings all along. By way of dis-analogy the act of painting, or drawing, or digital print-out simultaneously reveals the picture and more or less fabricates its content.

    Quote Keith: “Most of the “prints” that people are talking about here were made from negatives, so there are two stages of “development” between the initial exposure and the final print. In fact, we still use the terms “burning” and “dodging” for manipulating digital images derived from the days when people used physical processes to influence the appearance of the print”.Unquote.

    Yes! Keith points out what most of the world does not know: how photographs come into being. Most positive photographs (usually on paper) are photographs of negatives. A negative of a negative is a positive. A photograph of a photograph is a photograph. Importantly, the initial negative that absorbed and captured particles of subject matter becomes itself subject matter for what happens next. But it is often not the only piece of subject matter used to make the final positive. Accomplished photograph-makers can add small pieces of card or their own hands to the original negative and use the combination as subject matter for the final exposure. That’s “burning” and “dodging”.

    The almost universal naive view of a photograph depicting a mountain (say) is that “It’s a photograph of a mountain.”

    The perceptive view of the same photograph is “That’s a photograph of a negative, a “burning” card, and a “dodging” wand”.

    Even so, there is a physical, causal, necessary, but insufficient link back to the original mountain if we follow it back clear-headedly enough. Conspicuously, nothing in the process invokes cyberspace, description, or information. The successive stages of a photograph are physically connected and have an indexical relationship one to another.

    Quote Keith: “The actual relationship between the “picture and subject” was less direct than is perhaps supposed and more interpretive than pure “physical evidence” would suggest”.Unquote

    Yes, I mainly agree. The near universal naivity about photographs does not give ME clear excuse to be foolish or simple minded about what I am looking at. And photography itself, the making of pictures out of light sensitive materials, really does travel on an impeccable principle of “physical evidence”. Just because most people are unaware of the nature of this evidence and how it works does not make photography hostage to their misconceptions.

  9. Although Polaroid was overpowered by a lot camera brands today, yet I still believed that it could not be competed. Polaroid do offer different feature than the modern camera today. Thus, it is hard to compared tan other cameras. The great thing about Polaroid is that, it can capture and print photos immediately.

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