Digital Preservation

The transcript of my contribution to the forum ‘Digital Photography: Conservation and Collecting’ held at the Centre for Contemporary Photography on 8th October 2003.  The other speakers were Katy Glen, Angeletta Leggio, Sarrah Shapley.
Chaired by Daniel Palmer.
Full transcript available at

Breaking a leg [Les Walkling appears with a plaster cast and crutches] does to your identity what digital has done to photography, and this is where I want to begin. The advertising material for this evening eluded to issues around current shifts in digital image making (such as the end of a photographic original) and I took the hint from the title ‘Digital Photography: Conservation & Collection’ that maybe I should be trying to talk about digital photography and leave the conservation and collecting up to the experts sitting beside me.

I wish to comment on eight interrelated concerns.

1. We have always been digital, we just didn’t realise it
Les Walkling alludes to a variety of ‘digital’ philosophies: Lucretius’ atomistic view of the universe in On the Nature of Things (55BC), the traditional spirit – corporeal divide in Descartes Cartesian Dualism, Kant’s Apriori – Aposteriori knowledge, Nietzsche’s (Beyond) Good and Evil, Lacan’s Mirror Image, and so on…

I suspect we’ve been digital before we had computers that could actually represent these things back to ourselves in ways that we understood…

2. Digital Mantras
I think one of the extraordinary developments in the history of photography, at least from an artist’s point of view, and certainly from a photographer’s point of view, is that for the first time in that history the latent image has been revealed. Anyone can now inspect and evaluate their image as a virtual print (on their monitor) before it is realised as an actual  print. And now all of a sudden everyone gets upset when their print coming out of the printer doesn’t match the image on their screen! For goodness sake, if we could really see what that latent image looked like during the proceeding 170 years of photography, I think we would be no less distraught; our photographic print has never matched its image latent to the world. So this whole idea of the monitor’s imposition into our photographic workflow has become both a saviour but also a sacrificial lamb. This is also a very compelling argument for professional colour management.

3. The Destruction of Reality (Myth)
I’m not just talking about the fact that photographs have never told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I think we have been reasonably comfortable with that fiction for some time. I’m interested in what happens to our concept of photography, and hence our relation to the world, at least the world as photographed once it has been pixellated.

Consider the side wall of this gallery and the extraordinarily subtle gradations of tone we can see floating across its receding surface, and marvel at how faithfully photography manages to reproduce such visual wonders.

After all, the whole Enlightenment project sought to extend our vision and hence understanding of reality through the priority of optics. With microscopes and telescopes, and eventually with photography itself, we sought to look further and deeper, to explore and understand the underlying structure of matter and the depths and recesses of the universe. Our rationalist project was in part to capture the nature of nature as seen.

This was based on the belief that nature was in fact smooth and continuous, which made perfect sense to us when seen through our eyes, on our small planet, and in our small backyards. Up until quite recently, and in some disciplines not until the late 20th century, we took for granted the ‘continuousness of reality’. Then along comes digital imaging and turns the illusion of gorgeous continuous resolution into steps of resolution called pixels, and heavenly smooth continuous tone into steps or jumps in tone called levels, and suddenly our whole world begins to fall apart, or at least into pieces.

Just imagine what would happen to me if I opened up a flat bed scanner, placed my face on the platen, and then digitised (decimated) my world into pixels as large as my face. Suddenly all that continuousness that had been my face – my cheeks, my eyes, my eye lashes, my pupils … my individuality – is obliterated. What was once my face would be reduced and circumscribed into a single square of a single colour and a single tone that is nothing more than the mathematical average of my combined presence.

4. Photoshop™ is not Photography
This is what happens to our belief in the continuousness of nature and identity once digitized. My eyes disappear, my eyebrows disappear, my lips disappear – the markings of our world begin to disappear and all we end up with a pixel grid that is nothing more than an  amalgamation of all that was once original and gorgeous and luscious (obviously I’m not talking about myself, but maybe my son or my partner!). So continuous resolution gets chopped up into steps of resolution called pixels and unbelievably beautiful, gorgeous tonality, that is also so faithfully captured by photographic processes, also gets chopped up into steps or jumps or levels of tone. Digital imaging posterizes the world. It dices it up. In this sense digital imaging has turned photography against itself. The trick of course, as an artist, is how can we maintain the illusion of continuous tone and resolution, despite its inevitable pixellation. We do this by chopping the world up into pieces so small that you can’t any longer see all the bits that you have chopped it into. This is easier said than done. But the bottom line is that Photoshop™ is not photography!

Look, if I visit an aquarium shop I expect to find a shop where there are experts, supplies and just about everything I would need for aquariums. Not so with ‘Photoshop’. While it appears that there is a whole bunch of screaming experts hidden inside Photoshop™,  they are unfortunately the most disorganised mob I’ve ever come across. There are numerous examples I could give you. For example, you can change image contrast using at least six different Photoshop controls, but there is not a single mention in any of Photoshop’s ‘help’ menus that lists or compares, let alone evaluates these different controls.

Maybe help menus are not that helpful after all. And the same ‘silences’ permeate most of the ‘Photoshop’ books currently in print. And where are the discussions of the production of images that can be conserved and sold and valued and dreamt about in this literature? No wonder most digital photographer’s I meet remain mystified and confused. Maybe in part tonight’s extraordinary turn-out is further indication of the ‘problem’. Okay you’ve got the idea, Photoshop™ is definitely not photography.

5. Developing the Corporeal
For centuries we have used technology such as lenses to extend our vision; to see further and deeper than with our eyes alone. Art and creativity in general historically extends our reality into the virtual recesses of consciousness through our dreams and memories. Digital imaging restructures this relationship with some surprising consequences

What are photography’s most enduring qualities? For example the mnemonic qualities of photography is the first thing that got me excited about photography. Photography doesn’t ‘forget’. It faithfully reveals what some other process showed it. Consider the hair accidentally caught in the film gate during exposure, and its imprint which is inevitably inherited by every subsequent process until the final print where we have to account for it and retouch it in the print. Photography archives even our mishaps.

Digital imaging doesn’t work in the same way. Angela also hinted at this in her reference to the descriptive determinism of contemporary digital-photographic processes. In order to change things that are already digital, that is in order to change things via a  pixel editing program like Photoshop, you inevitably destroy  pictorial information rather than accumulating or conserving that information. That is how the digitization of reality works. Reality becomes posterized as soon as it is digitized. While this is the inevitable consequence of any reproductive process, digital imaging intensifies this effect through its electronic order and precision.  Those of you who have already been to one my CCP digital imaging workshops will have witnessed many compelling illustrations of this phenomena.

When the loss of the physical object is paired with the rapid obsolescence of the reading/interpreting technology needed to access its virtual equivalent, our ‘memories and dreams’ rather than being conserved as part of our cultural heritage, are threatened to die along with us. No wonder the archivists are worried.

6. The Liberation of the Print
When you return to the year of my birth, 1953, and examine some of the photographic literature of that time, such as the British Journal of Photography Almanac, and add up the number of manufacturers of photographic materials, and in particular look at the range of photographic papers then available, you will end up with dozens and dozens of creative permutations in terms of surfaces, weights, densities, base colours, sizes, textures and so on, making up an extraordinary range of print options. It must have been a wonderful time to be a photographer.

By the early 1970s this was already beginning to change, and has continued to accelerate. Four years ago Kodak started publishing their product catalogue online, and how many times since then have we visited their website only to find an ever increasing list of favourite photographic materials being listed as ‘discontinued’. The overall trajectory for a contemporary photographic artist has been the diminution of materials. That is unless you buy a factory and a couple of emulsion coating machines and make your own photographic paper as some notable people have recently been doing, or you revert to earlier photographic processes which were always under the control and manufacture of the photographer.

So what has Inkjet technology done for us? Well today we can print on just about anything that will hold the ink pattern. This amounts to more than just a new concept, it represents the liberation of the photographic print.

The ‘liberation of the print’ is an exceedingly important development for artists. Five years ago pigmented inkjet technology had already exceeded the limits of photographic (chromgenic) image stability, and therefore significantly extended photographic print longevity as verified on Henry Wilhelm’s website.  Although there may be some issues regarding his experimental design and testing procedures, his contribution has been phenomenal in terms of providing us with comparative data on the various printing processes.

Five years ago we already had inkjet prints with a colour range larger than even Fuji Crystal Archive RA4 photographic paper. With today’s wide gamut images a photographic print looks positively ‘weak in the knees’ beside an 8 colour Hexachrome pigmented inkjet print. I’ve often joked with my students that when we visit Wilsons Promentary National Park every year and climb the summit of Mount Oberon to watch the sun setting, if only we could also take with us a light box and E6 processor working at the speed of light, so that within seconds of exposure we could view an 8” x 10” colour transparency of the spectacular sunset we were witnessing – a super Polaroid if you like. We would also be somewhat  disheartened because that otherwise gorgeous looking transparency would appear quite inferior to  the brilliance of the sunset itself. A similar revelation actually takes place every time we compare a wide gamut inkjet print with a traditional photographic print.

The myth that the ‘convergence of technology’ limits available choices would appear to be waning, at least in the world of photographic printing.

7. Bucket Technology
Once upon a time what you could buy at a supermarket was as useful as what you could buy at a large photographic store – at least as far as photographers were concerned. Today our chemical, optical, and mechanical printing processes have been largely replaced with digital processes that interact at the speed of electrons.

We were once able to Do It Yourself; that is make really large and really fine photographic prints on our own. A hundred dollars brought you this huge sheet of PVC plastic which you heated up and bent and welded into a huge processing tray into which you would roll out your exposed photographic paper and then chemically process it. That is, ‘bucket in and bucket out’ the chemicals until the process was complete. In the chemical darkroom for very little financial outlay you could set up the most sophisticated printing processes on almost any scale. You didn’t need laboratories, you didn’t need to collaborate with industry, you could work quietly and cheaply alone as an artist with your materials in your own studio. And best of all, bucket technology could quickly and easily adapt to new papers or chemical concoctions. Ancient cameras could still expose the latest film technology and so on. It rewarded experimentation and remained dependable for years and years. Technological change didn’t exclude us from the photographic process.

8. Collaborative Processes
But what has happened since the advent of digital processing? Increasingly artists are having to work with, being forced to work with professional photographic laboratories. After all who has half a million dollars to install a 50” Lambda digital-photographic printer in their own studio? This represents a profound turn around in the photographic work ethic. But guess what? The most interesting thing about being forced to work with labs, is that Labs are now also being forced to work with us – for one very simple reason: the poor lab owners also can’t keep up with rapid technological change. I do a lot of colour management work around the country, helping professionals set up their facilities and assisting their clients. But their real problem is the fourteen hours a day they have to put in just to pay the wages and keep their doors open. On top of this they have a manual almost the size of a telephone book for each stage of the digital process, which is also unnervingly being regularly updated and revised and/or superseded.

The problem for photographic laboratories is not just trying to implement the new technology, but also understanding its ever changing cosmology. So who are the people who can and do keep up with this pace of change? Artists! This is an important point. We are the only ones who seem to have the time to do the research and in many cases possess the vision required for its implementation (because we’re basically unemployed and we’re just making art – of course I’m only joshing!). The research and innovation many artists are undertaking seems way ahead of where many industry people are at. So it’s extraordinary – and I’m talking on behalf of my students at RMIT University again – the job opportunities that are opening up for artists working as artists in all the various industries associated with the Media Arts, which even includes the archiving of our digital prints.

Copyright Les Walkling 2003