If you want to save an important photo to show your grandchildren some day, which is better: putting it online, or printing it out? The answer might surprise you. While physical photography definitely carries the risk of damage, digital photography isn’t immune. And when it comes to conserving contemporary art—the kind you might see on a computer monitor or projected on a gallery wall—the drawbacks of digital media become even more alarming.
Gen Y, Meet Generation Loss
It may seem like a digital image is safely locked away from harm—there’s no flooding to cause water damage, no moths to eat the paper, and no light to bleach the image. But depending on the format it’s in, that digital download from the portrait studio or the big marathon may have already begun to decay the moment it hits your hard drive. In order to keep file sizes small, many images are compressed. That means they’re processed through an algorithm that strips away unnecessary detail, like pixel-thin edges and minute differences between colors.
JPEG, one of the most common photo file formats, infamously uses this kind of “lossy” compression (there is a “lossless” version, but its file sizes aren’t as manageable). Done once, it’s not a problem. According to Stanford University’s Computer Science department, the slight modifications that come from compression usually don’t make a difference when it comes to human perception. But do it over and over—for instance, once after you crop the photo, again when you upload it to Facebook, again when you download it to another device—and these tiny losses in detail begin to make a difference. This is what’s known as generation loss. Generation loss can technically affect any form of media—as anyone who’s taped a TV show on VHS can attest—but it’s most immediately a problem in the digital realm.
Paul Chan, 6th Light, 2007. Flash animation projection, silent, 14 min, dimensions variable.
Image: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Courtesy the artist and Greene Naftali, New York © Paul Chan
Beyond image quality, digital art and photography runs into other problems. Technology is always evolving, and that means leaving old storage formats in the dust. To this purpose, the Guggenheim has established a Conserving Computer-Based Art (CCBA) initiative designed to make sure that future generations can experience today’s modern art. That’s no easy task. A flash animation designed a decade ago may run differently on a more powerful computer today; a lost animation may need to be recreated in a programming language the artist never intended. These all bring up ethical quandaries that conservators have never encountered—and they require skills conservators have never needed.
Of course, that’s in the highest echelons of the art world. What about the rest of us making art and taking photos in our free time? There are a few ways to protect your media and make sure it lasts. Instead of downloading an image from any old place, keep a master file on a hard drive that you can always come back to—files themselves don’t degrade; it’s only the re-saving as a lossily compressed image that will do it. Make sure to regularly back up your data. That’s a good idea regardless, but it’s especially wise when you’re talking about family mementos you can never get back. And if you can, make sure your camera takes photos in a RAW format rather than JPEG. The files are larger, but the quality—and longevity—is worth it.