Memories destroyed in a flash

The advent of digital has meant the demise of the physical photo album. But even though we can store treasured images in the 'cloud', are we losing something special?
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Pose, click, print. That's how personal photography used to work. Quick, everyone, line up by the swimming pool, or get next to grandma as she blows out the candles on her birthday cake. Smile.

The shutter closed and once the roll was finished, it was off to the high-street chemist with the film, hotly anticipating the chemical-smelling prints that would be in our hands before the day was out.

Then the physical memories would be passed around, and stuck on the wall. The prime cuts would make it into an album, ready to be brought out at future gatherings to embarrass or bore friends and family.

For those who took photographs to record their lives, rather than create art, the paper album was king: a visual reminder of where we'd been, what we'd done and whom we'd done it with. Susan Sontag called albums "accessories to the act of remembering" and William Gibson even wrote a poem about them ("I hesitated before untying the bow... a Kodak album of time-burned black construction paper"). For most of us, though, it was simply pleasant to have a tangible reminder of our past, no matter how much dust from the attic it had on it.

But that was then. The Kodak era didn't last much into the 21st century. And it was largely brought to an end by the company that gave the era its name. In 1998, the company began to market aggressively its DC40 camera, and in an innovative move teamed up with Microsoft to create digital image-making software that allowed users to put albums on disk. Crucially, it also worked with IBM to create a rudimentary online network for exchanging pictures. This ripple of photographic change became a tsunami when Facebook launched in 2004 and online photosharing websites such as Flickr and Picasa came into existence. Flickr was created in the same year as Facebook and bought by an eager Yahoo! just one year later for a reported $35m.

We now had massive virtual galleries to display our photos – something Facebook's 600 million users have done with enthusiasm. The game had changed: the end product for a shot, however artfully framed and steeped in family memory, became the CD and hard drive, the Facebook profile and Flickr page, rather than photo print and album. It's not a carefully bound photo album replete with delicately written captions, as the carefully edited Facebook profile is.

"We may be taking more photos than ever but getting them all developed seems vaguely absurd," says Val Williams, professor of photography at the London College of Communication. "It's sad for the developers but photography has always been about innovation, in the technological vanguard. And how we look at our pictures and store them has changed, too. Perhaps if the world hadn't gone digital – and then online – we might still be sticking our photos in albums and would still have all the high-street developers. But technological change has come and it's changed everything," she says.

The question is, though, should we lament this revolution? Is it preferable to have pictures gathering dust in a drawer or floating in the cyber ether? Is there even a great deal of difference? "I'm not sure there is," says Susan Bright, who co-curated Tate's 2007 photo-survey exhibition, How We Are, and is currently attached to New York's School of Visual Arts. "I think we've a tendency to mythologise the album and the printed picture. I, for one, have never been one for pulling my albums from the shelf every five minutes to take a look at them. However, I constantly see my digital photos when my Mac's screensaver comes on or when I log on to Flickr or Facebook these days. This thing about computer hard drives being a cemetery for photographs is, I think, a chimera," Bright says.

We may see our photos as much as ever, but is the experience as piquant as holding a treasured photo in our hands? Surely the act of looking at a picture on the screen is never going to be as intimate as holding a folio of pictures. David R. Brookes, a freelance curator and photographer, certainly thinks there is a difference. "You can't pick a computer screen up and examine and feel it: the screen is a sort of lens which changes comprehension of the image. It is inevitably a different experience," he says.

It is this separation that gets Flickr-phobes wincing. You can't, after all, scrawl the date and place in ballpoint pen on the back of a digital image (date- and place-tagging just doesn't cut it, according to this view). And because you can't touch the picture, the link between the image and the viewer is wider. "It is rather like being an audience member: it's more 'televisual' in a way, a tad more solitary. You tend to look at Facebook through your own profile, on your own; you seldom huddle around it in a group," Val Williams says. "But really it comes down to whether you're valuing the captured image, the split second recorded, or the way it has been preserved and stored."

Spend a few minutes watching a Facebook feed and you quickly see it is not just our viewing experience that has changed. The way we store and display our pictures has radically altered the nature and type of photograph we take. A high proportion of photos on social networking sites tend to be posed self-portraits, the telltale arm holding the camera often hoving into view at the side. The breadth and scope of the pictures we display has decreased, according to Val Williams. We've moved away from Sontag's idea of photos as being accessories to our memories, towards photos as a brag – a way of telling the world what fun we're having, and how good we look having it. And it is the format of social networking sites that encourages this. "It makes me laugh," Val Williams says. "There is an archetypal Facebook picture and it tends to be inside and quite artificial. Often you can guess it's taken for the benefit of an audience: Facebook is like your own mini-magazine, a place to display yourself. It's not necessarily better or worse – just different. It was never so much the case with your personal album."

There are undeniably positive changes, though. Mobility, for a start. Take a 3in-thick photo album when you're trekking in Cambodia and you'll get funny looks in the hostel and probably a stiff back. But with an iPhone or laptop and your pictures uploaded on to the digital storage "cloud", you can look at your own albums and create new ones for your friends and family to see as you travel around. Uploading on to the cloud also gives added security against loss, as the data is stored far away from your own home computer hard drive. So the old question "What would you save in a fire?" doesn't require the updated answer: my computer hard drive.

There is, however, an elephant in the room when it comes to digital photo storage. Death. What happens when we die? A recent study in the US – the country with the most Facebook users – estimated that 375,000 American users die annually. And if their passwords go with them, the likelihood is that their pictures will be lost. There are sites such as Entrustet which organise an individual's digital assets, and will give your passwords to your loved ones on your death, but the service costs money and takes time to set up. And so, unwittingly – or carelessly – in our search to safeguard our photos, we may be endangering them.

Even if we do sidestep the digital shredder by passing our passwords and hard drive to our families, the sheer number of pictures we keep has got curators and historians in a spin. "Our photographic legacy has increased exponentially in the last decade. We constantly take photos on our phones and cameras, and when we die and historians try to analyse them, they are going to have quite a task," Doug Dodds says. Where once our archives might have consisted of several hundred photos when we die, most teenagers now have more than that on their Facebook profile. Interestingly, though, as Dodds points out, many photos will have "metadata" embedded in it. Unique numbers and GIS co-ordinates are in some instances tagged to photos, and this will help future generations to decipher their meaning. So it is by no means all bad for the historian.

For lots of people though, the merits and demerits of the various methods of storage are an irrelevance. It largely comes down to a matter of taste. Some people wouldn't countenance reading a book on a Kindle or the news on the internet, and similarly many people don't like the idea of viewing their photos on a screen. "It all comes down to what you like," Williams says. "Some people still use their old film cameras, most have gone digital. Both produce beautiful images and it's the same with photo storage. Both ways can be useful and charming. We shouldn't get too hung up on how we save our pictures," she says."We just need to make sure we carry on saving them."

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