Monday, January 19, 2009

Archiving history

Thirty years ago the Amtrak Floridian passenger train that ran between Chicago and Miami was in it's final months of operation. Louisville, where I worked at the time for the Courier-Journal, would loose passenger train service.

I began a project to document the Floridian and over a few months in early 1979 I spent days in the Chicago train yards, riding the train and photographing the passengers, crew and an engineer, W.C. Roddy who drove the train between Louisville and Bowling Green, Kentucky.

There was also Henry LaSane, the porter who had worked for years on the railroad and was not sure he'd find another job. He met his daughter at a stop in Wildwood, Florida who came to see him. A sweet kiss from dad and he was back on board for the remainder of the trip.

The Floridian did cease operation later in 1979 due to budget cuts in the President Carter administration.

The black and white negatives have been stored away until recently when I bought a film scanner to begin another project, archiving the photographs I've made over the past 40 years. "Living the Cambodian Nightmare," the Floridian, "Yosemite, A Landscape of Life," The Sierra in Peril, Hunger in California, twelve years of performances by the Sacramento Ballet, and hundreds of family photographs, on and on...

State and local historical societies, university library archives, and many other repositories have been archiving material for many years. The Center For Creative Photography (CCP) at the University of Arizona houses the works of Ansel Adams and W. Eugene Smith for instance. The University of Louisville Special Collections has the 1.5 million images and was one of the first collections of documentary photographic history in the nation.

Newspapers have always had libraries and collections of photos and copies of past issues. Some newspapers hold on to photographers' negatives, some release them back to the photographer after a span of time, five years or so. Digital photography has changed everything in terms of archiving. Essentially that is great. Keeping track of digital images is a far more organized affair than film ever was and takes up a lot less space in doing so. But what of all the pre-digital age film of a community's history? What will become of that material as newspapers simply try to stay in business and produce a daily product?

I fear that many news organizations will not even know what they have and will have even less interest and resources to convert even a fraction of it to digital files.

Perhaps the saddest story is of the fate of the 40,000 negatives of the John F. Kennedy era shot by Jacques Lowe. He had them stored in a fireproof safe in a vault beneath the World Trade Center. He died a few months prior to September 11, 2001 so he will never know that the inferno following the terrorist attacks literally vaporized everything.

His daughter writes about the loss:

I'm really excited about Pete Souza who has been selected to be President Barack Obama's presidential photographer. He's absolutely the right man for the job of documenting the daily events in the Obama administration which will be historical in every sense of the word. This is his second tour in the White House; the first was during the Ronald Reagan years. He and his staff will be shooting digital and in fact, he made the official Obama portrait using digital, the first ever. You'll see it soon in a post office near you. He will not have the archiving issues Jacques Lowe had.

One of the keys to archiving digital photography is redundancy. Multiple copies stored in different locations. Hard drives fail. CD's get corrupted.

My intentions for my work is to scan, upload to sites out of my home, burn archival DVD's and store on good hard drives. I also have the opportunity to turn over film, transparencies, prints, and notes to some permanent archives. All of the Cambodia material is going to the CCP in Tucson and the Yosemite body of work will be housed in the Yosemite National Park's permanent archive.

Newspapers print the first draft of history, as the saying goes. Photojournalists show what was happening while that history was unfolding. We don't get the luxury of rewrite. The way we saw it is the way it will always be. I just hope that in the future there is that visual history to see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A beautiful memoir, Jay. I grew up riding the California Zephyr to Denver for summer visits with grandparents, and your images brought back a flood of memories for me. The music is particularly effective and well chosen.

~ Peter Saucerman