Stephan R. Lewis is a professional photographer. He accepted to share his knowledge with us, with this exclusive article.
The value of photographic prints
I have been in the photo industry trenches for a long time and have watched many things come and go in popularity.
When I say ‘trenches’ I mean not the glamour part of the industry that you see everyday on magazine covers, beautiful and famous people, but rather the nuts and bolts of mass producing press release photos of tired employees, photographs of products for advertising for small business, other time sensitive materials with a short shelf life, created for immediate usage with no value once the deadline has come and gone.
My actual primary concern at the beginning of my career was printing archival black and white photographs for exhibition and professional use, art prints designed to last 100+ years, so the disposable and transient nature of consumer photography amazed me.
Which brings me to the popularity of one-hour photo finishing of snapshots that existed until recently. Everything from birthday parties and Christmases, the latest vacation snaps and spontaneous party photos to out of focus and overexposed close-ups of newborn babies, dog noses and amateur porn.
Everyone seemed to be shooting like crazy and getting prints that ended up in a box or still in the envelope, if they (the prints) were lucky they were put in a photo album or even framed on the wall- or maybe just stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet.
110, 126 and 35mm cameras made it easy and affordable to make photos, fun, quick and relatively cheap. Then came APS, the last gasp of film as a consumer product, and now we have the most insidious of all- the camera built into your cell phone and all types of image capturing devices. These devices are so great because once you have bought one your ongoing expenses theoretically are nothing- but computer time!
A big part of my photo lab duties has always been restoring old photographs. Photographs from 1890, torn and or folded images from the 1950s, photographs that had Dad cut out in the 60s after a bad divorce and the kids want him reinserted in the 90s! I have worked on wallet sized prints that had in fact been in a wallet for 20 years until someone realized it was the ONLY print of that person and now they needed an 8×10 for the wall, for the memorial service… the oldest photograph I ever worked on was from 1849. Plenty of those images I have worked so hard to restore and make like new had started out as ‘happy snaps’ and ended up being the only or last or best photograph of someone beloved and, sadly, now departed.
Why? People forget – photographs are priceless, one-of-a kind records of a specific moment in time, a moment that will never occur again, a method of capturing and preserving memory that mankind has only had for about 160 years.
As small children we go through the family photo albums, laughing at the way people used to dress, marveling at how much someone looks like great-grandpa, examining vintage cars and houses, looking at things and people that no longer exist. History.
Now we have digital photography, images that might never leave the memory card, maybe get stashed in a folder on the desktop, turned into a slide show that can only be seen on that specific computer, at best uploaded to share with friends and family online. Where will these images be in 20 years?
Is the current advent of technology creating an attitude towards photography that is undermining its inherent value as a historical record, thoughtlessly making it too disposable and transient to be appreciated and preserved?
I photograph lots of special events, large groups, and school kids and sales of prints from these sessions are down markedly. After spending 30 minutes setting up a group shot and capturing it with my high-end digital camera, with the intent of selling true photographic prints designed to last 50 or more years, a Mom or kid next to me will hold up their camera phone and grab a shot and figure: “Got it!” and good enough. As a result, they don’t buy a thing.
Then they get home and maybe look at their quickie capture, email it to grandma and forget about it. Ultimately it may be saved under an incomprehensible filename or not at all, put on a hard drive that will inevitably crash, or uploaded to a website that ceases to exist in three years, or even worse- forgotten about altogether!
Let me tell you people- that camera phone image, that image on your computer screen is not a memory preserved for all time! As long as it is not PRINTED, a physical hard copy that can be whipped out years and years later, it only exists for the moment.
Do yourself a favor. Print that photograph and put it in a photo album so your kids, your grandkids, maybe even their children can see what you looked like on your myspace or Yahoo profile in 2008!