Saturday, May 2, 2009

Digital or Not Digital

Recently I heard about the concept of a 10,000 year photography gallery. This idea has been put forth by photographer Edward Burtynsky in a presentation to the Long Now Foundation back in July 2008. The concept of the 10,000 year gallery is to archive images of our times that represent the culture of human kind today for future generations to see. Think cave drawings viewed today from our ancestors.

Part of Burtynsky's presentation was about the medium of display. His argument was that
photographic prints, especially color prints, degrade badly over time (digital imagery may not be practical because the machinery used today to create the images most likely will not survive in 10,000 years for the most fundamental reasons of environmental forces, etc.). Of course during every century, the images could be transferred to the technology of the day, but this solution may become cumbersome and requires a level of maintenance that is not practical. So instead, Burtynsky proposes the use of “carbon transfer prints.” This technology was invented back in the 1800's and there are a few, exactly three practitioners of this process. One happens to be in Seattle, Art & Soul. The carbon process transfers the image to just about any surface; water color paper, ceramic, steel, etc. The concept being that carbon wont degrade, the material wont deteriorate, and the imagery will last for millennia in the 10,000 year gallery.

Great, right? Not so fast. The problem is that the practitioners of this process are very few and there may not be new generations of people who know how to do this process. What happens when the few folks with the skill to create carbon prints turn into carbon themselves? We have all this great imagery of human kind turning into dust. As a culture, we are so quick to race towards a digital world and leave the analog (carbon) world behind, we lost tack of the value older technologies has to offer. Digital is great for today, but what about the archival prints? Sure, we can make a print that lasts maybe 80 or 100 years. Then what?

Students of photography, think about learning this craft. It may be ancient, but it will last millenia.

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