I’ve been writing a lot lately about the purpose of photography, and how it might be shared with others. One of the ideas I just lightly skimmed on was the issue of permanence in photography, a quality that seems, to me, to be somewhat conflicted.
On one hand, photography is a vital part of documentary. It serves a role in making permanent records. After all, how many of us have our memories of past times preserved through photos? From the Facebook photo album to the 1960s reel of Kodachromes that your parents made on their vacations, photographs have held a traditional role of preserving family history. Likewise, for historians, photographs have provided a vital record of past times, from the natural and built environment to labor practices to cultural norms. Examples of the latter range from landscape photographers like William Henry Jackson and urbanists like Paris’ Atget through to social reformers like Jacob Riis and FSA documentarians Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others.
At the same time, photographs are highly temporary. The most common popular outlets of photography were — and still primarily remain — newspapers and magazines. Both are publications that are produced frequently and have an implied shelf-life — many magazines even state on their covers the date when they ought to cease to be displayed. Both publications are frequently recycled after a very short duration of existence. Neither format is constructed robustly, as their temporal nature is an accepted part of their formats. Outside of media, prints are often lost, and film negatives often become aged, distorted, and un-useable. Digital images, in theory, are safer from degradation, but there’s some question of what will become of the massive number of digital images photographers — be they the family snap-shooter or the most seasoned professional — over time.
According to the old saw, a picture is worth a thousand words, but as precious as that makes them, they may not last nearly as long. I’m unsure where this leads, except that it reinforces one strong personal and artistic belief: that the photographs we create must have some relevant role now. As precious as documentation is, photography’s best defense is not preservation, but rather in how it can directly affect those who are exposed to it. The purpose may be humble — to record a favorite moment for example — or it may be a part of a grand attempt to alter the viewpoint of society. Or it might be somewhere in between. Regardless, it is purpose that ought to be at the forefront of each and every photographer’s mind — including my own.