Once upon a time photography was hard printed!

In 1997 the world of photography was about to change drastically from its conformable analog photo era to a rather agitated digital time where experimentations were tried on a frenetic market flux. Nobody already know at that time that the change will be so radical that today we have great difficulty to remember what it was a little more than twenty years ago. In fact it represent one only generation gap if when you think of it.

The big difference is that photography was presented on a two dimensions hard support like paper or cardboard at the time. Yes there were slide shows (classed as audio-visual) but the fact was that photography was considered finalized when the image was printed.

Today the picture representation is now virtual meaning observed from screens of different dimensions and resolutions on diverse hardware supports. Yes the image is still fixed but not permanently  as it use to be in the past. And this very picture stay virtual and is memorized to digital support which access and durability can be variable and uncertain.

Back in 1997 we were in the apogee of the analog film era and during that spring I was part of a group of fellow Canadians who were invited at the Leica Akademy located at Solms in Germany not far from Wetzlar. At that time Leica was concentring its operation in maintaining its past heritage with the productions of the M6 rangefinder model and the new SLR R8 (with a controversial design). Autofocusing functionality was not part of the Leica plan but some of their own employees agreed that it was an inevitable option to offer in the future.

During the morning class sessions and the afternoon practical picture taking exercices on various beautiful locations, we were not aware that in ten or twenty years we will be seen as long outdated photographers and dinosaures. But in reality things were already changing at a very fast rate. For example it has been already for more than ten years that photocomposition was digitalized and the news photographers were scanning directly their negatives for further use during the paper editing process. The only weak point of this production chain was the analog camera by itself which was still using near obsolete film negative technology. And this why press media were hurry to adopt the first digital still cameras even if they were largely quality inferior to theirs analog cousins.

So the pressure of the photo technology change was not only a pure R&D effort but rather a complete technical push from the entire economic and industrial activities. In fact the photo industry was late instead to be at the front guard.

Paper has been abandon for communication and documentary purpose for obvious economical reasons. The debate about the ressources availability and the environnemental issues had accentued that movement. But the archival impact issue stay still a conflicting debate. The new digital storing technologies have still to demonstrate that they can equal in durability of the paper conservation for long time archival purpose. Access and durability of the digital memory supports seem to be incertain and fragile on a long term. And they are not easily convertible for most of them.

Since the past twenty years we have lost an easy access (if not entirely) to the recent photographic documentation. It is symptomatic to see a lot of photo reeditions that origin to the traditional analog era but very few from the digital recent past. It prove that the photo paper representation has not been really replaced by the actual digital supports which are clumsy to consult partly because of the overwhelming total of pictures taken without any kind of radical selection and proper classification. All these works will be or are already lost for the next generations.

Reflecting on these two different periods of my modest life (film & digital) I came to the conclusion that the hard printing may be the only way to get a final photographic representation that will be preserved, consulted and reproduced in the future. So don’t prevent ourself to select, edit and print your best or more significant pictures.

All the pictures presented in this article has been taken by the author during the Leica Akademie in May 1997. There are all scanned from the original slides (colors may have shifted over time).

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