A Philosopher's Blog

Photos and Memories

Posted in Aesthetics, Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 17, 2011
The Polaroid Corporation logo.

Image via Wikipedia

A short while before she was heading to Orlando, my girlfriend asked me to scan the photos in her old photo album and in a box. No doubt worn out after a week of preparing to move and dealing with her ongoing dissertation study, she said that she was tired of carting the photos about and wanted to toss them after I had scanned them.

While this might not seem like a matter fit for philosophy, it did get me thinking about the exploitation of male labor by the female oppressors. I mean, it got me thinking about the preservation of photos and whether there would be any meaningful difference between the original photos (which are pre-digital) and the digital copies.

The easy and obvious answer would seem to be that there would be no meaningful difference. After all, a photo is just an image and the scanning would duplicate that image. In fact, the scan would be better than the original. Not only could the scanned image be backed up against loss and printed as needed, it could also be color corrected and otherwise improved relative to the original. Also, a photo created from a negative is already a copy (of sorts) and hence any concern about one being an original and one being a copy can apparently be set aside. That said, it would seem to be worth looking a little deeper.

Before looking a bit deeper, I believe I am obligated to present a possible biasing factor. Being a person of moderate age, I grew up long before digital cameras and have a certain nostalgic attachment to physical photos. However, I do not even own a film camera anymore and have been doing digital photography since the late 1990s. As such, I think that I can restrain my bias and look at the matter with some objectivity. Or perhaps not-the ways of one’s youth can be hard to shake.

While an non-digital photograph is but an image of an event that was most likely created from a negative (with the obvious exception of the Polaroid), it can be argued that a photograph can become an artifact of memory, history or nostalgia. This, perhaps, makes it more than just a mere surface image that can be copied by scanning. Rather, it is an item that is imbued in a way that makes its physical composition an important part of what it is. Since this component cannot be replicated by scanning, to scan a photo and discard it would be more than merely discarding a redundant image, but throwing away a vessel of memory, a vehicle of history, a bearer of nostalgia.

To use an obvious analogy, imagine if someone wanted to scan historical documents and throw away the originals to save space and weight. While the images would be preserved, a significant part of the history would be lost. To use another obvious analogy, consider the distinction between anĀ  historical item, such as a coin or sword, and a modern replica. While the replica might look exactly like the original (and might even be “better”), it would seem to be lacking in important ways.

Of course, it can be argued that while historical artifacts have a value in terms of historical research, the main value of old items comes from the fact that we value them. Take, for example, a fading childhood photo. While it has numerous objective qualities, these do not include those that make it a vessel of memory, a bearer of nostalgia or a possessor of sentimental value. These qualities do not exist in the object. Rather, they are a relational property between the person and the object: a photo has sentimental value because I value it. Perhaps they are not even that-after all, a person could certainly be duped into thinking that a photo is the original one, even though it was replaced with a new print modified to look old. Perhaps someone damaged the photo and wanted to replace it without the person knowing-perhaps as a perceived kindness or to avoid the fruits of anger. The person would feel that sentiment, but would, of course, be in error. It would be like a person thinking she was seeing the person she loves, but was actually seeing his twin. Until she became aware of her error, she would feel that love. Likewise, a person would feel the same way about the photo, at least until she was aware it was not the original.

Or perhaps she would still feel the same way. After all, perhaps it is the case that the value attached to the image is based on the image rather than the object. So, for example, a scanned copy of an old photograph would create the same feelings and stand in the same relationships as the original in terms of the value placed upon it. If so, then being rid of the old photos would be no loss at all.

In my own case, my emotional view is that it would make a difference. While the image is an important aspect of the photo, the physical photo also has a value as an object connected to the past. Of course, this feeling is just a feeling and could merely be the result of my pre-digital youth. I also feel the same way about hand written letters, but that perhaps says more about my age than about the world.

 

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4 Responses

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  1. tms said, on August 17, 2011 at 6:10 am

    Great topic! If I may add a further thought: A non-digital photograph is a physical trace while a digital image is a sign.
    German art historian Horst Bredekamp links the non-digital photograph to the Veil of Veronica and similar media of representation, quoting Henry Fox Talbots remark that in a photograph, we see “nature’s hand”. The general idea is the idea of physical contact here (of we print from a negative in the classical way, we still have the trace of light on paper in the print).
    With a digital photograph, you have light hitting the sensor which then translates the results of this impact into a code – that is, by definition, into something arbitrary (if I am not mistaken).
    However, this does not mean that you cannot manipulate a negative or a “classic” print of course. The examples for such manipulations are numerous, and well known.
    Still, I see this difference between the digital and the non-digital as fundamental — until I learn better. Throwing out the negatives and the resulting prints would seem like erasing the traces then…
    I hope my way of explaining this in short (and in a foreign language) makes sense. Cheers!

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm

      That does seem to be an interesting difference. The photo, as you note, involves a “physical” connection to the original event, while the digital photo seems to be somehow less connected.

      Back when personal computers were actually becoming useful, I had a friend who refused to use them for anything artistic. I think the bias against computers is largely gone now, but I do know of some folks who still hold that it is not a proper medium for certain types of art-such as painting or drawing.

  2. Art Vandelay said, on August 28, 2011 at 3:20 am

    As information technology embeds itself firmly in our lives, there is the tendency to think that everything we ‘upload’ onto a hard-drive or onto the Web has acquired some additional permanence that offsets the decay that (for example) paper photographs will eventually succumb to. There is some truth to this view. You have the possibility of not only creating a back-up copy of a digital photo, but creating numerous redundant back-up copies, and storing those copies across multiple different drives and locations. If one copy is corrupted or lost, you are still with many others. If you upgrade your IT, you can transfer the files across fairly effortlessly.

    The benefits of having a digital copy of a photo or of music are quite clear. However, that does not in itself constitute a reason for destroying the ‘original’ non-digital masters. Consider your example of scanning photographs. There are numerous scanning options available to you, and your decision of which configuration is best may depend on your concerns at present. Due to limitations on your time, you may take the ‘quick’ route, and scan copious photos in a low or mediocre resolution. Scanning photos in this way meets most of your needs at the present – it creates a fairly good quality digital copy in a file format of your choice – and it’s fast and easy. In the future though, you might want a better quality scan of particular photos. You may want a higher resolution copy in a different file format. You may find that some of your original scans were imperfect to begin with. Taken together, you’d want to re-scan some of these photographs to better digital copies or to more enduring file formats. You can’t do this if you’ve destroyed the original photograph.

    Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Scanning techniques improve over time. Your needs change over time. File formats tend to endure the test of time, but even so that is not a guarantee. Drive volumes are always increasing (allowing you to store even more high resolution scans).

  3. 4×6 Film | The Blue Pixel said, on September 24, 2011 at 3:04 am

    [...] = 'none'; document.getElementById('singlemouse').style.display = ''; } Film v. DigitalPhotos and Memories #content-body,x:-moz-any-link{float:left;margin-right:28px;}#content-body, x:-moz-any-link, [...]


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