"Technology: No Place for Wimps"
A Discussion about Photography in the Digital Age
By Dusan C. Stulik and Art Kaplan

ROY L. FLUKINGER is senior research curator of photography and film at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. He has lectured and published extensively on regional, cultural, and contemporary photography; the history of art and photography; and film. He has also produced nearly eighty exhibitions, with subjects ranging from classical photographic history to contemporary photography.

CAROL HENRY is a Southern California fine-art photographer whose work has been seen internationally in over two hundred exhibitions. She has been represented in over twenty galleries, including the Ansel Adams Gallery, where she is also a fine-print specialist with expertise in Ansel Adams photographs. She has over thirty years of darkroom experience, and her images are in many private and public collections.

JAMES M. REILLY is founder and director of the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. He received a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was given the Silver Light Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Association of Moving Image Archivists. He was also the first winner of the Hewlett-Packard Image Permanence Award for the Society for Imaging Science and Technology.

They spoke with DUSAN STULIK, a GCI senior scientist, and with JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.


DUSAN STULIK: Photographs in general occupy a special place in most people's minds. In an emergency like a fire or flood, people save children first, spouses second, and pets third—but right after that are photographs. What is it about photographs that makes them a high priority to save in an emergency?

JIM REILLY: They're a record of people's lives, the embodiment of memory. It's what Kodak was always selling as a subtext about photography—the capture of memories and your life’s experience. If someone is no longer with you and your house is on fire, it's like saving your collective life together.

ROY FLUKINGER: It's an extension of what [Eastman House curator] Alison Nordstrom once so famously said: "Photographs look like the truth but they feel like memory."

CAROL HENRY: I've lived in the Santa Monica Mountains for decades and have gone through the process of packing up in an emergency. I never lost my home, but I was in that scary place more than once. At the time, I had my fine-art archive in the house, and it was a toss-up whether I took my professional archive or family snapshots. Normally, I would do anything to protect my professional work, but when it comes down to it, it's those family snapshots that help you frame your existence—and that's why you reach for those things.

STULIK: With the change in photography from analogue to digital, instead of grabbing a photo album, you might be reaching for a laptop or a stack of CDs. What are the general ramifications of this huge transition in photography?

REILLY: Analogue photography has always embodied a tangible object. It might be a negative, it might be a positive, but there's something physical there. In digital, it's divorced from something you can see or touch or relate to in many ways. Even the activity of making digital photographs is kind of cerebral. It's mostly manipulation—and most of the time, the digital file is not rendered into a tangible object. Analogue has a physical embodiment, and digital mostly does not. That's the huge difference.

FLUKINGER: I agree with Jim completely, but it's even more complex than that. Technology, in changing to digital, has also changed the human experience of that process. As Marshall McLuhan once said, "it is the framework which changes with each new technology and not just the picture within the frame." This generation of young people has the ability to change the image digitally. And it's become much easier and simpler. Previously it was much more obvious when the image had been altered in some form—or it was very difficult to alter it to begin with. So the whole atmosphere around the creation of the image has changed, in terms of its human quotient.

HENRY: With digital, there are many opportunities to indulge in a vast range of creativity. The ease of access and sheer volume of creative captures is a visual feast. However, with the new digital media, I feel we've lost the quiet and purposeful time spent planning and the artful practice of executing an image. From the photographers' perspective, the situation is different as well, regarding post-photograph manipulation. These are very powerful and seductive tools. Dedicated photographers from previous generations sought those "ah-hah!" moments. It was part of the addiction to the art form. Now the image is more about the result than about the stalking of the perfect moment. There is a temptation to do your exploring on the computer software level. Which means more time sitting and less time engaged with the subject, whatever your subject is. That affects your connection to the sensitivity and vulnerability of your subjects.

JEFFREY LEVIN: Has this transition changed the way you think about creating your work?

HENRY: Most of the work that I do is without a camera, and it's on Ilfochrome paper, which will soon stop being produced. So yes, it will change the way I work, because the medium I've been working with is disappearing. I'll be forced to find other creative ways to work. I think when you have a creative mind and eye—and you're used to looking at the world—it doesn't make that much difference which tool you use to document it. But the technical aspects are different.

STULIK: Several years ago, the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in the United Kingdom changed its name to the National Media Museum, to reflect the merging of different visual arts categories under a broader term—media. What are the implications for conservators, curators, and photo artists of this change?

REILLY: For a long time, photography fought to be taken seriously as an art form. That was the battle of a century ago. In the last fifty years, nearly all major museums accepted photography as an important form of art and established photography departments. Now you can see that this is coming undone. Photography per se is merging into a broader category of contemporary art and contemporary media, because it has so much in common with video and various other things. The important point is that, as the analogue structure goes away, it further erodes the notion that photography is a major art form in and of itself. I think the analogue photography period—and the objects that were made during it—will become subsumed administratively into museum departments of prints and drawings, because analogue photography will become another graphic medium that has a limited palette or is defined by a particular historical period, like engravings or pencil drawings. It will be another historical technique and a means of expression that had its moment in time. And we won't speak so much about photography in a broad sense. Digital has undermined the notion of photography as an art form in itself. With digital, yes, you start with something, but it doesn’t even have to be a camera image. It's so cerebral and manipulative. The art is in the manipulation. There is still a final product, but getting there is so different.

STULIK: For us in conservation, the situation is increasingly complicated. Millions of photographs were created by different chemical processes, and we have to take steps to ensure they are with us in the future. At the same time, we face the challenge of preserving digital photographs—which are objects when they are printed, but are also those illusive ones and zeros.

REILLY: The traditional photograph conservation profession is spectacularly ill prepared to deal with preservation of ones and zeros. It's a very different discipline, and we're only at the early stages of figuring that problem out. I'm not sure photography conservation, which grew out of paper conservation, is well equipped yet to address it.

Photo: Marsha Miller. © The University of Texas, Austin.
Artists worth their salt should not ignore how these techniques and processes are changing, nor should they be ignorant of what conservators are trying to do to predict the durability of this stuff and to preserve it.

FLUKINGER: Any sensible decision you're going to make in the future has to take into account not the world as it is but the world as it's going to be. And this depends in large part upon the commercial field and how that's going to eliminate some practices of photography and bring in other media forms. It also depends on how collecting institutions define themselves in the future. There are many factors involved in that—not only what you collect but why you collect, as well as practical things such as budget, staff, and patronage. Essentially it is still Darwinism. You're going to adapt or you're going to die, and the question of how you're going to do that is what's important. The administrations of these organizations are just beginning to tackle this. It's analogous to what we've done with the literary collections at the Harry Ransom Center. The use of computers by writers preceded the digital applications for photography, and so there have been solutions proposed for the digital written word that now are being adapted for our institution. It's going to have to be the same for digital images. Different things are being tried. Some will work, some won't. It’ll be trial and error—and problems and catastrophes are inevitable. I'm not sure solutions are. But you're going to have to adapt as you go.

LEVIN: Carol, as an image maker, how concerned should you and other image makers be with these unanswered questions regarding preservation?

HENRY: As an artist, long-term preservation was never my primary concern—if it was ever a thought. Once you have a body of work, then, yes, you think about it. Maybe it has to do with age, I'm not really sure. But the drive to create is certainly separate. People are going to reach for the tools and medium that are available and accessible. I'm pleased to know that there are those thinking about preservation, because as artists, of course, we want to see our work preserved.

FLUKINGER: Of the image makers I know, some are fascinated by this question of preservation, and some could care less. It depends on the individual artist. But artists worth their salt should not ignore how these techniques and processes are changing, nor should they be ignorant of what conservators are trying to do to predict the durability of this stuff and to preserve it. It's not up to artists to find answers, but it's up to artists to do their part. What's the old Dilbert slogan—"Technology: no place for wimps."

REILLY: During the heyday of analogue photography, some photographers, like Ansel Adams, were very interested in the long-term survival of their work. Adams sought out technical information that could help him do that. For manufacturers, by and large, there wasn't much incentive for focusing on permanence and preservation. It's similar today with the information technology world, which is larger and more diverse than photography ever was. Digital technology underlies so many applications in the world. The information technology industry is not very concerned with permanence and preservation either.

FLUKINGER: Jim, I recall a Rochester Institute of Technology conference many years ago on conservation and materials, where you guys spent the first morning terrorizing the hell out of us with how the present technologies are not permanent. Then we all went to lunch at the cafeteria, and as we passed the campus store, there was a big display in the window from Kodak with the slogan "Photographs Are Forever." I thought that was a great irony—and not a bad comment on just why we were all there that week.

STULIK: Driving to work, I heard a news story that Kodak, which invented digital photography in 1975, is getting out of the field. They are not going to produce any more digital cameras.

FLUKINGER: That's the way it is in business—even after decades of success, some businesses fall. It happens in all sorts of commercial enterprises with photography. In the meantime, other ones are now taking their place. The growth of photography was as much commercial as it was independently created.

STULIK: But what's interesting is that artists always find a way to adapt. I can imagine people in the past complaining about the unavailability of daguerreotype equipment or plates or whatever. That is very similar to now.

FLUKINGER: And yet, right now there are a number of extremely creative artists using what we're calling alternative processes—the old historical processes. Some of them are doing brilliant work that rivals some of the digital work. Artists will always attempt to learn from the past, adapt to the future, and try to do something with it. That’s what’s exciting about the art of photography.

Photo: Courtesy Carol Henry Studio.
When you have a creative mind and eye—and you're used to looking at the world—it doesn't make that much difference which tool you use to document it.

HENRY: There is a great satisfaction from the tactile sense of being in a darkroom creating something. Obviously, the next generation is going to take things to a different place, but you can't stop thinking about the fact that you had this ability to create these amazing and beautiful pieces of art with your hands. I think some are reaching out to find a substitute for the printing ability that they might have had in the past. There's a population of photographic artists out there who have looked at defining themselves in this day and age and have said, "I really want to try these historic or alternative processes," and they have not gotten on the digital bandwagon entirely.

STULIK: Carol, you also work for Ansel Adams Gallery. For many people who love photography, Adams represents a pinnacle of black-and-white photography in the United States. But he was a very forward-looking person. He experimented with Polaroid and worked as a consultant for them. With his ability to adapt, do you think Adams would embrace digital photography?

HENRY: Ansel was masterful on all levels, and not just as a darkroom printer. He was a visionary, and I believe he would embrace it.

FLUKINGER: He would run full tilt at it.

HENRY: He wouldn't quit working in the darkroom, but he would be excited by some of these new tools, and he would definitely indulge in them.

STULIK: He spent a lot of time manipulating photographs. His photographs are examples of the best printing techniques, and also of the best darkroom manipulation techniques.

HENRY: It's true. Ansel's mastery of darkroom printing was able to bring so much attention to some of the great geographic features that we have in the United States, and to help create the environmental movement through awareness. That was enhanced by the drama that Adams was able to capture at these very dramatic locations. But his printmaking skills amplified the drama of those places, and he was very influential.

FLUKINGER: From the beginnings of photography, the creative individual has always wanted to manipulate and alter the image in some fashion—starting with the early daguerreotypes that were tinted by hand. The big issue comes with the medium of communication. At what point does truth have to come forward and present itself in the medium in the communication of fact? It becomes an issue when you are talking about the communication of truth versus non-truth. But the manipulation of photography for a creative purpose has existed from the beginning.

With inkjet printing, once you've done your manipulation, virtually your only choice is what kind of paper to print on. That choice was always a part of photography. Certain papers were favored by certain photographers because of their characteristics. But these days, the printers are nearly a given. The next-generation pigment printer from Epson is the one that almost everyone will use. A handful of printer manufacturers are essentially doing the same thing, and what the artist gets to choose is how big it is and whether it's on glossy or luster or matte paper or canvas. The expression, and the dimension where craft comes into image making, are now very different because of digital.

STULIK: According to one estimate, in 2011 the number of existing digital photographs—1.9 trillion—surpassed the number of analogue photographs—1.8 trillion. What are major challenges when dealing with the exhibition and acquisition of digital material?

REILLY: It's vexing enough with analogue photography to talk about what is a vintage print, and what is an image of similar content unworthy of our attention and preservation. That problem has always been there and is becoming more acute. But with digital, the question of terminology looms large. From the conservator’s or curator's point of view, how do you identify all this new digital-output type material? In today's world, they're all inkjet prints, and everybody’s making them from digital files. In theory, you could take that digital file and output print after print, so if something gets scratched or it fades or gets torn, you just reprint it. But that doesn't hold up to scrutiny, because the print materials today are evolving so quickly. Every year there is a new generation of papers, inks, and dot sizes, to the point where curators have to admit that a print made five years ago and one printed today from the same digital file are not very likely to be the same thing.

FLUKINGER: One institution that is making a serious stab at this problem is the Met. They've changed the way they acquire digital prints, and the type of information they get from artists is much more demanding. I believe they even acquire two copies of the print when they decide to select it—one for immediate use and exhibition and one for deep storage. When the first one deteriorates, they have a policy of destroying it and eventually using the other. So there are attempts on the part of many curators to adapt to the storage and care of that technology, in the same fashion that artists are trying to adapt to the technologies in the creation of the imagery.

REILLY: At the end of the day, if something should happen, yes, it's good to have one to pull out of the deep freeze. But it’s not safe to assume that if something happens to the original object, it could be re-created and be the same. It could be re-created, but it would be different.

LEVIN: This issue of changes in technology and materials forcing an adjustment in the way artists work has personal meaning for you, Carol, doesn't it? It inevitably affects the character of the work that you'll be doing five years from now.

HENRY: Yes, absolutely. Until now I have made one kind of image—a unique print. I have been fortunate to have available Ilfochrome paper, which is a positive receiving print material that works beautifully with the art form as I visualized it—projecting light through the subject directly onto the surface of the paper. In the case of flowers, this process captures and reveals qualities that you wouldn't ordinarily see when photographing the flowers with a camera and reflected light. With the disappearance of Ilfochrome paper, these prints become more special, even though they were already one-of-a-kind prints. I will look back on these days and on the body of work I produced and be proud of it. But at the same time, staying creative and looking toward the future is very exciting!

STULIK: A lot of print material is in question now. Kodak stopped producing black-and-white paper in 2005 and later stopped production of all color paper. Now it's Ilfochrome. These technologies are so complex that there is no way for individuals to re-create those processes at home. They need huge machinery using complex chemistry. The knowledge is dissipating very quickly.

REILLY: About the limit of what could be done in the kitchen or in the workshop of a serious and determined person or group is to produce a light-sensitive film-like material and maybe a reasonable black-and-white paper, although it may never be the equal of Ilford Multi Grade 4. That's about as complex as that kind of investment, and that kind of technology available to people, would ever get.

REILLY: Do you think they'll ever be able to equal a silver gelatin print with an inkjet printer?

FLUKINGER: Not yet, but I don't discount whatever is possible in the future.

STULIK: But whatever technology we have, technology cannot create a great photograph. Right?

FLUKINGER: What's the basic rule of creativity? It's allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is just knowing which ones you're going to keep. That's the bare bones of it. Technology will constantly change under our feet. Some artists will try to imitate older things, and others will go on to do something entirely different. I don't fear that. What I fear is that they may lose being in touch with their own humanity. But I don't fear that artists won’t be able to adapt to new technology. Don't tell artists they can't do anything—because they'll do it.

STULIK: Jim, the Image Permanence Institute received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in support of continued research into the preservation of digitally printed materials. Can you tell us about that work?

Photo: RIT University News.
With digital, the question of terminology looms large. From the conservator's or curator's point of view, how do you identify all this new digital-output type material?

REILLY: Well, there're a lot of different technologies available to make images. What we're doing is studying the major families of technology and trying to understand their strengths and weaknesses. For example, pigment inkjet prints are very susceptible, relatively speaking, to abrasion and physical handling problems. A lot of photographers have discovered how easy it is to mar the surface of matte fine-art inkjet papers and how these papers may not be very resistant to cracking when flexed. Electrophotography, on the other hand, is more robust in some ways, but most people would say it doesn't yet offer the image quality that inkjet can. So what we're trying to do is help people think about broad preservation policies. If you can identify the technology that a print came from, you can be aware of problems that afflict it and adjust your handling and storage policies.

But there's a limit to how far you can take this approach, because there's a lot of product specificity. Liquid toner is different from dry toner in some respects. And one inkjet paper is different from another, or one inkjet-system pigment has different characteristics and dyes. Even within pigments, some are more lightfast and some are more susceptible to pollutants. It's impossible for consumers to know what they’re buying, curators to know what they've acquired, and photographers to know precisely what they have, because the products are different and are evolving. What you bought under the same brand name six months ago is likely to be different now. We have to give some knowledge of the broader characteristics of each technology, but it isn't easy to specify what you should buy. The problem was always there, but in the past, products didn't change as much or as fast as today's materials. It takes us months to study these permanence properties, and in some cases years. We find ourselves studying materials no longer on the market.

FLUKINGER: Arthur C. Clarke said that each new technology has its own set of problems. You can also say that each new technology creates its own set of questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean it's going to create its own set of answers in the same amount of time. It gets more complex, not less.

REILLY: Yes, but we have to try to do the best we can.

FLUKINGER: I know, and I admire conservators for being able to tell me not only that this is their best guess but why this is their best guess—and also to be able to say, "We don’t know that yet." That's important. That tells us more than we poor curators know. I value that.

STULIK: Is there something we can do regarding the education of artists, conservators, and curators that can help us all understand those issues better, as well as better prepare for the situation in the future?

FLUKINGER: I think we've progressed along that road. A lot of the curators now attempt to either have a conservator on staff or know conservators whom they can go to for answers. That was not as true twenty years ago. It has become a more valid part of our education and our thought processes. I think you guys have really had an impact in that respect.

LEVIN: How likely is it that members of the artistic community would put energy into documenting the material elements of the creation process—the paper, the printer, and the ink used?

HENRY: I think this is a rare opportunity because we're at a point in history where major change is occurring. There is all this concern, and rightfully so, because we don't know about the longevity of these materials. But do I think fine artists will do that? Do I think they will be motivated? Not so much. To be involved with the creative process is like having blinders on. I don't think it will be a high priority for most, even though it would be useful to document this new art form in transition.

LEVIN: If we were having this conversation ten years from now, what would be the most significant considerations, in terms of the making and preserving of images, we'd be discussing?

FLUKINGER: The simple answer belongs to Stuart Brand, that great thinker, who once said that when a new technology rolls over, you're either part of the steamroller or you're part of the road. Change will keep coming. Technologies will increase not only in their permanence but in their impermanence, museums will be transforming at the same time, and users are going to be transformative in their own fashion too. There's going to be so much change on both sides of the equation that it’s hard to predict.

HENRY: I think I have the easiest answer, which is to say, I will still be creating. Every day that I get up, I have this calling and the responsibility to create. I will still be playing with light and creating imagery that pleases my own need for visual stimulation, in whatever medium I can. I will be pursuing that in ten years, and it will be a surprise to me to see what the output is!

REILLY: The trends we see today will still be there, but to an accelerated degree. Analogue photography will have more or less completely receded, because it's an economy-of-scale business, and the economics won't be there to support it. People will make more images than ever, and they will make them with ever more personal and more portable devices. The flood of imagery and the ease of transmitting, manipulating, and viewing will continue and grow. But in fine-art photography, there will be greater understanding of the historical differences of technology, and of what it took to create an analogue photograph—the mastery of craft in the darkroom and the boundaries and the challenges that chemistry presented. When people walk through the galleries of an art museum, they'll be more aware that an analogue photograph is a special kind of creation. I don't think we'll be having photography shows of contemporary work—instead, it will be in the form of contemporary art, and the art will be less defined by the technology and more by all the other things that go into it. Any historic analogue photograph will have an extra-special value because it will be recognized as being of another time and another technology.