(I wrote some of this for a post I made on APUG but I have massaged it a bit and posted it here on my blog.)
For years my wife was the archivist, and primary documentary photographer of the household. Of course in my childhood it was my mom. Pre-digital this was all done on inexpensive point and shoot cameras. The prints were carefully stored away in photo albums. Those albums went on shelves and once in a while we would get them out after dinner and sit around the dining room table looking at pictures. In some strange way it was one of the ways we affirmed our relationships with friends and family. Back in the day my kids learned who some of their aunts and uncles were through these photo review sessions since they lived far enough away that they were not part of our day to day routine.
When digital came along my wife was the early adopter in this house. She was using 1 and 3 megapixel point and shoot cameras while I was still stubbornly clinging to my Pentax K1000 and denying that anything would change. Almost from the start She began learning and working with the very early versions of Paint Shop Pro, cleaning up and enlarging pictures for anyone in the family. Her work was very, very good, especially considering the limited technology. Her biggest complaints in those days were that those early digital cameras were heavy duty battery hogs. I used to pack AA batteries for her and sneer that my camera, which used one button battery, hadn’t needed a battery change in 4 years.
But change is remorseless and things change in ways that we cannot anticipate. Even though my wife was very much part of the evolving digital scene, eventually her attitude changed. I blame it on greed. The camera and computer software companies had to upgrade ceaselessly. It was like they couldn’t leave things alone. The first time my wife had to upgrade her version of Paint Shop Pro she wasn’t very happy about it but she went ahead and did it with very little complaint. She actually admitted that the new version had a few new and useful tools added to it. But then, about 6 months later, she had to upgrade again. This time she was not very happy. I remember her actually getting on the phone and complaining to the company about it, but of course they convinced here that she would love the new tools. I didn’t hear anything about the new tools and when I asked her about it she said it wasn’t worth the headache. But, of course it was only just beginning.
MS-DOS was retired and the new Windows came along and that time we really had some major upgrades. Over a period of about 6 months we had to upgrade several of our programs. This time she was pretty stoic about it all, especially since it this was a complete operating system upgrade and the new Windows environment was obviously so much different. But not long after that, about 6 months later on, Paint Shop Pro upgraded their software again. This time my wife was angry. She made the upgrade, but she was very unhappy. But this time things were different. After the upgrade was finished she started up the program again, and everything was different. The entire program had changed. Her shortcut keys were gone. The menus were changed. She was completely lost. She didn’t know how to use the new program. They had changed it so much in that particular upgrade that all her controls were different and her familiar, friendly photo editing program was gone.
That was the end in our house. My wife was no longer the Archivist. The computer software manufacturers had killed it. Oh, she tried, and she actually did get to the point where she could do a few things again, but she was never as good as she was before. Once in a while she would sit down in front of the monitor and try but it was less and less. I think she had lost the desire. The computer software companies had killed it with their greed. The stupid thing was that it wasn’t necessary. That was the last upgrade I ever made to that program. I continued to keep it on the computer so that she could work with it if she wanted, and I was pretty successful at keeping it alive until Windows Vista. I tried to get her interested again. I picked up a bigger, brighter monitor. I went out one Christmas and bought her a fancy new Olympus 8 megapixel digital. It was a beautiful camera but she never used it. I think she shot a couple of dozen frames with it. The camera and software companies had finally destroyed it for the little guy.
Oh things kept improving for sure, although “improve” may not really describe it. Maybe I should say that things kept changing. The big corporations kept making the changes. They would train their employees in the newest programs and the changes kept coming. As time went on digital photography supposedly became better and better, but you didn’t see much of it in our house. My wife, the early adopter, still does a bit of photography from time to time. But she hasn’t done anything digital in years. She continues to use her last 35mm point and shoot, a very nice little Olympus Infinity 2000. It isn’t worth selling and it keeps on taking pictures. She takes the film to Wal-Mart and they give her pictures with a CD Rom. She still puts those pictures into those albums, but she hands me the CD-Rom and asks me to load it on the computer. She won’t do it any longer.
Now I know that part of this is caused by age. As you get older it is harder and harder to keep up with the changes. There is less reason to learn new things and it gets easier to default to the things we knew in the past. But there is also the part where you have to wonder whether this entire digital rat race is actually even worth it. Just the other day she was working with some 35mm snapshots that she had made with her 1990 vintage point and shoot, and she pulled out one of those early digital prints that she had spent hours working so hard on with the computer software. She turned to me and said; “these new pictures look a lot better than these old ones. I wonder if the old ones are fading?” I laid them side by side and she was absolutely right. Now I know that the old digital technology is not comparable to the new technology, but I see this same thing over and over again, even today. Unless you are willing to spend lots of time manipulating the image with software, too often the new digital still does not compare with the old analogue. The newest digital prints still seem to struggle against the old analogue ones.
Have we really made any progress or has this all been another scam, just another way for someone to make some money? I am not so sure anymore. I read the photography forums and I read posts where people are bragging about the magnificent images they are getting from their newest cameras. But 6 months later they are crowing about the newest camera and the old one has been tossed on the rubbish pile, not worth what they claimed it was when it was new. And it continues. On one hand we are told that we now have more than enough pixels to match what 35mm is able to do, but two months later a new camera is marketed with even more pixels. Does it end? I don’t think so, not as long as people are willing to spend money buying the newest product.
I am not a Luddite. I use computers and I work with digital photography. I have a wonderful Pentax digital SLR and while it is not the newest, it is still pretty nice. My cell phone can even take pictures. And I know that there are far more ways to share things today. There is Facebook, You Tube, and now Vimeo, and at one level this is all wonderful. You can find out so much in such a short time. These on-line social communities have become the new archivist for our brave new world, and hopefully everything will work out. But my grandchildren are missing out on that chance to sit around their dining room tables and learn about the past and future relationships that are important to their family. They can go on Facebook and see their aunts and uncles, but they are also missing out on those stories that made them real. Instead it is all about ‘Friends” today. Friends that they never really seem to know much about. Oh they may know some of the drivel that is being posted, but very, very little of it is important. They are missing the important stories. It makes me feel a little bit sad. But I guess it is progress. In my parents day it was the family bible. In my day it was the photo album and my parents probably felt that my kids were missing out. Today it is Facebook and You Tube and I am wondering if today’s kids are learning enough about their own roots to anchor them solidly in this ever changing world. Who knows what will be happening 10 or 20 years from now when my grandchildren will be wondering about these things.
I don’t know if it is good or bad but the archivist is now a computer and a cloud. There are millions more images floating around out there in that cloud but we may have lost some of the context that existed in the Family Bible and the Photo Album. I hope our kids find a way to put it back.