Photographs Decay More in their Digital Form


There are so many advantages to digital photography and we’ve all heard about it. At one point, digital cameras were all about instant gratification. When that became common, Google Photos did a wonderful job in bringing older photos from this day that year back into our busy electronic and gadget fuelled lives. But all good things must inevitably come to an end.

After luring you by serving your own memories back to you using algorithms that map what you like seeing, they will now soon make that a paid service. And why not? After all, they thought of it, or at least, recognised the potential of it, before others did. Let’s face it—what seemingly comes free is making someone somewhere a billionaire. They’ll pinch pennies today and get their pound of one thing or the other tomorrow.

And cameras now shoot fifty or so megapixel images at twenty or so frames a second, and if you don’t want to spend precious second or hours transferring photos, you better get the fastest memory cards with the highest capacity that cost just a tenth or a fifth of the camera (body only, of course), especially if video is preferred, in high resolution too at thirty frames a second, from where you can extract a single thirty four megapixel file, or alternatively, you have ftp access built in so you can send it all to a cloud, of your choice. One way or the other, it’s all good. Out of sight, out of mind. Until the ghosts in the machines bring them back.

I have seen an original print of Kertész’s Blind Musician, and until that point, I will admit I could not see the exultation of that moment, even on a large monitor. I’m quite sure that most of this generation of photographers have not seen, and now will never see, the stunning brilliance of a well-made, extremely detailed contact print from a 10×12-inch negative. A few years ago, for an aunt’s birthday, my cousin spent a few hundred rupees and stuck about two hundred postcard to passport-sized family photos on a wall in the living room. That wall of family photos remained ever since, with the photos changing depending on the occasion—birthdays, festival celebrations, official or unofficial introductions to boyfriends or girlfriends… The wall is an incredible conversation starter, with everyone excitedly chattering about their pasts, occupying everyone’s attention for a good while, even if the photos don’t always change between visits.

Even to see an image present itself with no more of a motive than that it exists to occupy a certain planned real estate somewhere is a joy and art that is becoming more rare as space takes its premium in an increasingly crowded, miniaturised, digitalised world. The 153.14 square inches of an LP record sleeve for photography, typography and design went down to 22.32 square inches of CD inlay art, to (optimistically) 6 square inches on a mobile phone screen. At least the screen resolutions are increasing, even if you will soon need spectacles and fresnel screens to see anything on them.

I am not denying that there are many advantages to today’s digital environment, but I do think that most people, including photographers, are unaware that there is something as digital decay. Pixels do get lost. Magnetic drives demagnetise. Prints and negatives get water-damaged too, but I’ve known photographers to lose thousands of images in an instant with a disk drive failure. More horribly, images simply get forgotten.

Painting has remained painting, and has branched into graphics. Music is music, and has formed many sub genres. Poetry is still poetry. Baking a cake is still baking a cake. Things have not changed in twenty years, except with photography. Making a photograph is now taking a snap (or worse, a ‘capture’). Negatives, positives, prints are all, generically, images. Family group portraits are now group selfies. And as a close friend lamented some time ago, archiving is now called… ‘storage’.

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Better Photography.