March 2, 2010

Keeping Photos Out of the Fire

JGrahamBy James N. Graham, Attorney at Law
Staff Contributor

Jacques Lowe died in March of 2001 after a life spent behind a camera. Lowe had been the personal photographer of John F. Kennedy. In order to preserve 40,000 images taken over the course of JFK’s life, Lowe took the precaution of storing his negatives in the vault of a New York Bank. Unfortunately, that bank was JP Morgan Chase which was located at 5 World Trade Center.

When Lowe’s relatives examined the safe deposit box after the tragic attacks of 9-11-01, they found only ashes. There have been rumors that some of the negatives were removed prior to the fires, and some of the images still exist in print sheets and books. But the best images appear to have been lost forever.

This unfortunate episode brings to mind the importance of preserving documents and images in multiple formats. Written records and
photographs can be converted into digital format through digital photography or scanning. The documents and photos then can be stored very efficiently on one of many computer storage devices. A CD, DVD, flash drive, or hard drive is each a viable option that holds a tremendous amount of information. Good practices are to periodically review how and where your images and records are stored, to create a backup, and to consider updates which have occurred.

One key to avoiding the loss of records is to update the format periodically in order to match playback technology. Have you listened to any of your 8-track cassettes lately? What would you play them on even if you still had them?

Computer storage from the late 1980 and 90s largely consisted of floppy discs. Today, one would be hard- pressed to even find a computer with such a storage device. So, even if one had properly converted historical images into digital format in 1990, it would be difficult to view the images today.

If, on the other hand, a person had converted old photos to digital format on floppy drives in 1990, but then put that information onto a CD in 2000 and then onto a DVD in 2010, there would be no problem viewing the photos. The amount of physical space needed for storage has decreased greatly due to the increased storage capacity of each generation of media. A 1 MB photo would have required an entire floppy disc to store it. You can fit 650 of the same images onto one CD. You can fit at least 6 CDs onto one DVD. Storing multiple copies of photos at different locations gets easier and less expensive by the decade.

Many older formats are becoming increasingly difficult to use. Several years ago, my Dad and I played his old 8mm family movies for what might have been the last time. We used the format available at the time, analog VHS cassettes, to videotape a copy of the old films. I am hopeful that I can get the films to play one more time so that I can video them with a digital videocam. I know, however, that the old film is increasingly brittle. Further, if the projector breaks, I may be out of luck. But I will at least have the second generation copy we made on VHS that I can then copy to a digital format. It will not be as good as the original, but it will be better than a box full of ashes.