Weekly Witter: Will my daughters’ photographs survive for their grandchildren?

Leaving aside my feelings of regret as a customer and my sympathy with the former employees of collapsed retailer Jessops, there is another niggling worry on my mind. If various reports analysing Jessops’ demise are correct , “Core to Jessops’ failure was its relevance in a diminishing market as technology evolved and many consumers shunned dedicated cameras in favour of multipurpose devices such as smartphones.” (Tiffany Holland RetailWeek).

The change in our behaviour in taking photographs is also reflected in how we are now keeping photographs. A thought-provoking article “Death of the Family Photograph Album?” caught my eye in News Today. According to a study commissioned by holiday company Thomson Al Fresco, many people don’t bother to print photographs anymore. A poll of 3000 people revealed that 71% prefer to use social networking and on-line photo management sites to store photographs for reasons of speed, affordability and ease of sharing images. However, an alarming percentage also reported photographs had been lost due to computer viruses, accidental deletion or because the photographs had “mysteriously disappeared”. Then there are the people who acquire new computers and don’t bother to transfer photographs from their old PCs. Oh dear.

“How many images taken now will survive another hundred years?”

I am in the business of looking after the nation’s historic photographs – at least those kept in National Trust collections. As I examine and help preserve photographs up and down the country, I am reminded that what we like to photograph has not changed. The vast majority of photographs in historic houses reflect the lives and interests of their former owners: children, pets, gardens, weddings, moments of joy, humour or importance.

Feet in a pool

Digital photograph taken on a school trip – by Lynne B.R. – saved on her mother’s external hard-drive.

My own teenage daughter’s photographs reflect the age she lives in. Most of all they reflect her; they represent the memories she may want to share one day with her own family. The images are taken increasingly on her mobile phone rather than her camera, then appear on a social website. That she wants to record the moment is not in question, but she is less concerned – or at least less aware – of image quality and longevity.

Sometimes I grapple a collection’s practical problems: how can a property tackle the need for new, high-quality storage materials or afford the conservation treatment that is required? Yet though the photographs may have been created up to 170 years ago the actual state of images is often remarkably good. The techniques and materials used – even in the amateur market – produced a good percentage of images that have survived to the current day. This is fortunate because our interest in discovering photographs of other peoples’ or our own past remains undiminished.

Jessops encouraged us to keep buying cameras capable of producing decent images (and provided a service for printing them out, one presumes, on good quality paper with long-lasting inks) but the trend towards images taken on other devices then storing them almost entirely in a digital format seems unstoppable.

How many images taken now will survive another hundred years? Will images trusted to on-line photo management sites always be accessible? Will digital images I reject for printing out as hard copy survive? Will the materials I buy to produce hard copy be of sufficient quality to last as well as the photographs I care for in historic houses?

“Happily, I could replace them, but not unfortunately the other folders he had managed to delete from his wife’s memory stick- that included a wedding and a once-in-a-lifetime African holiday.”

My own current practice is still to print out and keep my favourite images in an acid and pollutant-free album of the highest quality I can afford. I keep digital images on an external hard drive as well as my PC. I occasionally share some photographs on social networking sites but am mindful of lack of privacy. I label images, aware of the frustration at identifying and dating old photographs. I am still considering the advantages and potential pitfalls of on-line photo management sites.

My final thoughts are with a friend’s husband who recently phoned in desperation having lost a set of portraits I had taken of primary school leavers. Happily, I could replace them, but not unfortunately the other folders he had managed to delete from his wife’s memory stick that included a wedding and a once-in-a-lifetime African holiday. I am not sure if she has forgiven him yet…

  • Anita Bools ACR is the National Trust Adviser on Photographic Materials and the Chair of the Institute of Conservation Photographic Materials Group. Her current research relates to photograph albums.
  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

6 thoughts on “Weekly Witter: Will my daughters’ photographs survive for their grandchildren?

  1. I think it’s sad that photos are now such a commonplace thing that they seem to have lost their value. It is only those taken by photographers and artists which seem to still be regarded as special, yet surely those that capture life’s everyday moments are the most precious? I am 23 years old, and I print out every photo I take on my camera-phone and stick them in a scrapbook, labelled and dated, often with a caption. When old friends from university come to visit, we usually go through the albums, and it is so much nicer than scrolling through a computer screen!
    I hope that people save their images in a back-up folder, because that moment captured will never ever happen again, and will be lost forever if deleted…

    • Hi Emma,
      I couldn’t agree more! Certainly as regards to social history its the everyday casual images that can be the most valuable. Its a very valid concern that despite the incredible variety of photographic mediums these days, ironically there is a huge danger of very little lasting for the future.
      I thoroughly recommend having a browse of our catalogue of old images on our collections website: http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk

  2. I take ~200 non work related pictures a week with a cheap point and shoot and occasionally create a photo book of the best. Each book is £65+ which sounds expensive but compare that to the cost of producing 10,000 35mm pictures a year and it’s nothing.

    Over the years I have collected two terabytes of photos which I store at home and in a lower resolution online cloud services, none of which provide the potential longevity of a printed picture.

  3. Pingback: Weekly Witter: Saving the family album | National Trust Press Office

  4. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button!
    I’d definitely donate to this excellent blog! I guess for now i’ll settle for book-marking and adding your RSS
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    Talk soon!

  5. I’ve often thought about this and I have a feeling that the answer is No.
    It seems that the easier it becomes to record – be it through photos, words, illustrations – the less lasting the materials are. Which is a great pity.

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