Friday, July 2, 2010

Image Revolutions

My first study trip to Europe in 1979 was what drove my decision to shoot 35mm slides rather than print film. As an ancient history major on a Classical civilizations tour, I wanted to be able to project the images to groups of people and easily make multiple slide or print copies of my shots. Thirty-five millimeter cameras with their many film choices were the most versatile option for such collaborative activities. I had the coolest technology with a camera that was easy to tote and the end product--a small, high quality, portable image I could easily share.

Time warp, circa 30 years later, I can shoot an image with my cell phone and send it on to multiple people in a matter of seconds. A wide selection of digital cameras are available--no film necessary--for every level of photographer from amateur to professional. Electronic copies of images are shared/stored on computers or prints are easily made at home or processed commercially. Digital technology has revolutionized photography and I’m thrilled to be a part of this transitional moment.

I was about 20 years too late to be part of the change from earlier forms of photography to 35mm slides. But, more and more, I find myself wondering about the similarities and the differences between these two image revolutions. Especially, the issues associated with teaching and sharing images.

Digital technology and social networks are providing unprecedented opportunities to collaborate on building image collections, but ironically, there seems to be a trend in academia of instructors building individual digital image collections that are shared in the classroom, but rarely further. Not to mention all the individual messes we are all quite capable of making with our digital files.

Is this the way it was when 35mm slides made it possible for everyone to easily shoot their own teaching images?

At what point did instructors start to realize that building a slide library everyone could use would be more efficient?

One case has come to my attention that sheds some light, but I’m sure there are more. At the University of California in Santa Barbara, the visual resources curators decided they wanted to add some historic African art material photographed in the 1960s and 1970s to the UC Shared Images project (see When researching the copyright issues, they discovered that the faculty member who had donated these slides was not the only photographer they needed to contact for permission to digitize and share the images. It turned out that a handful of art historians who were working on African art 45 or so years ago made duplicate copies of their travel slides and shared them with the group since they couldn’t all get to some of these exotic locales.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to collect other such stories to see if the transitional moment to 35mm slides might shed light on the digital image revolution?

The abandonment of the handy 2 x 2 inch analog object of our affection is still underway. Some were starting to move to digital images only 5 years after my student travels in the 1980s, but it is also true that there are instructors still using 35mm slides for teaching in 2010. The 50-year run of slides as the dominant image format is something worth consideration. As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Maybe we can learn something interesting to guide us through this and inevitable future transitions?

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