The Power of the Media - Nothing new

April 01, 2021  •  1 Comment


The power of the printed image has long been a running theme in this blog, and thankfully remains a truth despite the fact that when it started, many predicted that the onset of digital technology would see the end of anything committed to ‘old fashioned’ paper. Of course the electronic revolution has meant that pictures can be captured, transmitted and shared in previously unimaginable quantities, but the very volume and the instant -  here today, gone tomorrow nature of so many of them makes them as disposable as yesterday’s headlines.

Just how many of today’s top internet images will stand the test of time remains to be judged by future generations, but fortunately the previous technology of photography has left us some priceless insights into not so distant history. Helped by modern techniques of enhancing colour and detail those memories have now been brought more up to date, as you may have seen previously in the restoration of the Victorian soldier, veteran of the Crimean War, in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Back then taking photographs was in the hands of a handful of specialists using cumbersome equipment, and processing was done by hand, often in a makeshift tent on the spot. Despite the difficulties, it’s estimated that over a million photographs were taken a little later during the four years of the American Civil War, and though many have survived to provide a unique visual record, most of the glass negatives were recycled to fill panes in greenhouses to be lost forever. 

In late Victorian times most towns in England had nearly as many photographer studios as pubs. Everyone wanted to be captured by one of the miracles of the age and to be the envy of their neighbour. 

But at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Kodak company invented, and introduced the box camera, with its roll of negatives, meaning that shortly photography would be in the hands of the general public, and the days of many individual portrait studios would be numbered.

John Swartz knew the writing was on the wall, and he was open to any opportunity to bolster his business in Main Street, Fort Worth, Texas. So he was grateful when in November 1900 five apparently wealthy, well dressed strangers came to sit for him. He had no idea his photograph would eventually be seen so widely, and still reproduced long after the old Wild West had disappeared into the cowboy books.

He was, however, so pleased with the picture that he printed a large copy and put it in a frame in his window as an advertisement, where it caught the attention of local detective Charlie Scott who immediately recognised some of the faces and notified the famous Pinkerton Agency who had been searching for notorious train robbers Robert LeRoy Parker and Harry Longabough, better known to us and legend as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The rest, as they say is history, although with a little bit of artistic licence from Hollywood.

The peril of unexpected consequences of published images is therefore nothing new, although now with digital imagery, and social media, it affects everyone with a mobile device, not just the rich and infamous.

Fortunately, for most the results are not as terminal as they were for the members of the Hole in the Wall gang. The reason such images have survived, and are still of sufficient quality to be enhanced, is because they were real hard copies, whether in negative or positive form, even if many of those who had them taken didn’t always appreciate their future value.

Almost the opposite seems to be true of digital files as so few who use them realise how fragile and short lived they may be, relying, as they do on  algorithms they do not really understand as well as power and processors, all of which may one day fail them.

Then there is the sheer volume of content to deal with. I first heard the term Digital Asset Management twenty years ago and didn’t appreciate at that time how important it would become. But mention DAMs today and I would guess few would really know what it meant, even among those who should know better. If you have spent any time with a friend, or a customer searching vainly for a particular picture on a mobile phone, then you will know exactly why it is important, and why nobody bothers to use it until it’s too late.

I still have boxes of old 35mm negatives which I can still print from or scan to restore to former glory, because they are preserved in their original state, but I have lots of more recent Jpegs which are beyond any worthwhile restoration, and more that have just disappeared somewhere on failed hard drives, and redundant memory sticks. Even if I’ve found an old Jpeg, I’m disappointed to find I’ve only saved a low resolution email version and not the larger original, so it’s fairly pointless trying to update it because it’s not going to look any better.



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