The Scanner’s Dilemma

Tuscan landscape one December morning, near Radicofani

Strange title perhaps, but all will become clear shortly.

As a photographer in the depths of Covid lockdowns, I’ve found myself contemplating something that I should have properly faced up to a long time ago. It presents me with a set of issues the solving of which has previously proved to be so irritating that I’ve just taken the “Oh what the hell” route and done nothing. Those issues become evident every time I attempt a comprehensive solution to them.

The “issues” are something which I suspect every photographer of my generation has faced before, or will face before long. Our generation is the one which straddles the days of film photography and the current era of digital. Each leaves its own legacy. Digital tends to mean data storage devices full of photographs that seldom get looked at. Film tends to mean an office, loft or cupboard crammed with negatives, prints and (very much in my case) slides which are well-protected from ageing and dust etc, but which too, hardly ever see the light of day, let alone the light of a slide projector or a sorting tray.

Lockdown for me recently has meant spending a lot of time in front of the computer sorting the digital work I have accumulated in the past 15 years. It’s amazing how duplicate files proliferate, or collections get dispersed. My libraries of images demand attention quite often, to keep the stuff in shape and easily accessible. Lockdown gave me the excuse to do a deeper, more comprehensive clean up of the archives than I’d previously found time for. But eventually, that work was done and dusted.

I was a latecomer to digital cameras, a) because I had (and still have) a lot invested in what were back then, at least, very expensive medium format cameras, and b) because as time passed, my fairly modest residual needs to shoot on 35mm film were amply met by a trusted old-faithful Nikon  F3/T camera (read about it here ). Around it I had grown a collection of lenses and accessories over several years, which together suited my needs as a landscape photographer down to the ground, if you’ll excuse the pun.

That all changed when an irresistible opportunity to shoot sport came along. This happened much at the same time that I lost a great deal of my access to the landscapes that had hitherto provided the core of my most personally and commercially satisfying from work behind the camera. My world rapidly, though never totally, moved from one of taking maybe two or three photographs an hour in the mountains, to one where the need was often for three (or more) photos a second of athletes on the track etc. For a while, I straddled both worlds uncomfortably. I shot my mountains on medium format film and accepted the need to carry a lot of heavy, ungainly equipment with me up hill and down dale a lot of the time. And I invested in some reasonably good, though by today’s standards, pretty basic, digital equipment in order to hone my craft as a trackside photographer. Even today, what I use is far from state of the art, but it suffices nonetheless.

And two by-products of those changes in my circumstances were that I almost completely ceased shooting stuff on 35mm film, and that the 35mm photos I’d accrued over 35 years basically sat untouched in the storage cabinets that kept them safe. Those commissioning work from me required it by email attachment, or on disc, regardless of the medium it had originated in. Thus it was that it became an anachronism to shoot on 35mm film at all, because the same results and better, and in the required format, came straight off the digital camera. Medium format was a slightly different matter, because big lenses and large negatives had always given superior images, and these could be digitised, without much real loss of impact, via a flatbed scanner.

Maybe it would have been better if I had somehow had the vision to realise that moving images were going to be where a lot of it would be at in a few years time, and invested in the skills and equipment to do video? However, at the time, my markets were exclusively the printed page and static web pages.

Time passed. Digital grew exponentially in popularity, accessibility, quality, capability, and several other “ilities” too, probably. Film output – yes even medium format film output – languished as yesterday’s way of doing things, and the resort of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t “keep up with the times”.

My own work, for profit or for pleasure, is 95% shot on digital cameras nowadays. The remaining 5% lingers on medium format film output from my beloved Bronica cameras (see towards the end of this old blog). That it continues at all is as much for sentimental reasons as anything, and every negative I shoot on the Bronicas now is scanned into digital format pretty much as soon as it comes back from being developed. Thereafter, it lives a life similar to the other 95%, and the strips of original negatives accumulate alongside their 35mm cousins in slide boxes.

So, after all this introduction, you’ll be wondering no doubt, what is this “dilemma” that helped give this blog its title? Well, with the latest clean up of my digital archives completed, I’ve once more found myself facing questions in my own mind about the long term future for the thousands of 35mm slides, from the period roughly 1972 to 2006, which continue to occupy shelf and storage space in my home office that really needs to be put to better use. The dilemma is multi-layered, but its basic elements are as follows:

  1. Do I just leave it all where it is, hope that the passage of time doesn’t lead to it decaying, and content myself with knowing it’s there, if ever I fancy a trip down Memory Lane? or
  2. Do I just chuck the lot? or
  3. Do I start some process of keeping just parts of the overall collection, using selection criteria yet to be determined, and discard the rest? or
  4. Do I attempt to create a new digital library out of the collection, by some form of scanning, and 
  5. Do I do this for the whole collection, or just the parts selected under the criteria alluded to in 3) above?

Scanning tends to be quite a slow and fiddly process, however it is eventually done. Old photographic slides and negatives tend to be magnets for dust once out of storage. Even with the best brushes etc to clean them, some escapes, only to be visible as marks on the scanned work. Scanning is therefore inevitably followed by hours more painstaking work finding and digitally touching up those intrusions. That’s a bit “par for the course” when you’re doing a small batch of, say, ten or twenty slides or negatives, but perish the thought of needing to do it for twenty thousand slides!

To date, I have only interim answers to these questions. Some have been quite painful to arrive at. Sure, I could leave the whole collection untouched, and someone else can decide what becomes of it after I’m gone. However, I tend to baulk at simply tipping the whole collection into the bin myself. Much of this is my history and evidence of my past life/lives. Destroying it all would be like cutting off at least one limb.

I admit that the collection is not the best model of how to catalogue something of this size and detail. However, I feel happier at the thought that, within the whole collection, there will be:

  1. photos I simply no longer recognise, and which may just as well be thrown away;
  2. photos which are just not very good, which probably ought never to have been saved;
  3. photos that exert on me no practical, commercial or emotional pull any more, and which have therefore had their day; and
  4. photos which are, to me, good, memorable, or worthy of saving for other reasons.

Unsurprisingly, I’m minded to go searching for the last of the above, and resign myself to trashing the rest. That good, memorable (or whatever) residue can then be considered for scanning. That’s by no means a given – I don’t yet know how many images it would involve scanning, of course! It may even be necessary to make more than one pass through the results, in order to whittle it down to sensible numbers, whatever they may be.

So, regard this as a work in progress. I’ll keep you posted. I’ll be interested to have thoughts on the practical and philosophical issues this dilemma poses, particularly if you’ve already faced this dilemma yourself..

About tomsprints

I am a Masters athlete and freelance photographer living in Kent, in Great Britain. I'm a sprinter. As well as competing, my camera and I work regularly for the British Masters Athletics Federation and the European and World Masters Athletics organisations. For pleasure, I'm (principally) a landscape photographer. I have been blessed with the chance of spending quite a lot of time in the European Alps in the last 30 years. My web site is a vehicle for a my photographic work, and is at http://www.tomphillipsphotos.co.uk I run two blogs. One is about what it's like to be an older athlete ( http://tomsprints.wordpress.com ) and the other is basically about my photography ( https://ablogscape.wordpress.com ), although they often overlap.
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