One of the biggest challenges the industry faces today is the divorce between the image and the print. In ye olde days, the major cash cow for manufacturers and dealers alike was the marriage between the two and the fact that every shot taken—at least with color negative film—had to be processed and printed for photographers to see the fruits of their labor. Even clunkers got printed. And while maybe half of each roll got tossed in the round file (and some dealers and labs had a “take back” credit system in place) the image and the print were inextricably wed.
The losers in our brave, new world are obvious. They include almost every aspect of what had been the backbone of the industry—camera stores, labs, frame companies, album makers and the ancillary businesses that provided service and support for the 4×6 moneymaker. But there’s another major loser in this scenario: our customers and generations of their families to come.
Before I get into why that is so, and how this situation offers a major opportunity for the industry, let me tell you what kicked off my thinking on this. While waiting for a flight I was reading the Wall Street Journal, within which was a column by Richard B. Woodward (WSJ, May 6, 2015, Leisure & Arts section). The overall topic of his thoughtful essay does not concern us here, but one succinct line jumped off the page: “The image long ago outstripped the print in social importance for everyone except photography collectors.”
Now we are more likely to see images made at family gatherings and life events, vacations and the like as attachments to e-mails, in text messages or as posts on social media sites. Ask yourself this: when was the last time a friend or relative shared a shot of their growing family by pulling a print out of their wallet or showed it in a brag book or photo album? More likely, it’s shown by swiping across the face of a smartphone rather than turning a real, live page.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong about that, but I suggest it’s time to remind folks just how ephemeral those images are and how they can be gone in an instant. Social sharing sites disappear, cell phones get trashed, lost or stolen, and hard drives do what hard drives do. And what about folks who back up their images on CDs or flash drives? Anyone remember Zip drives? Storage formats come and go, and it’s unlikely those CDs will be able to be read and more likely will not be readable because of warpage or pitting; they do have a fairly short useable life expectancy.
Another quick sidebar: I recently decided to give all my family members a book of old family photos that my brothers and I had collected. I delved into the many boxes and found 100 or so shots—some made almost 100 years ago. The prints had been through a few transitions but all were usable, being mainly black and white. Many were typical lab prints of the day and I’m sure not processed with the greatest of care, but they were easily scanned and made ready for layout in a handy template software for a book. Can we say that images not made into prints or collected into books will be as accessible and usable 100 years from today? I seriously doubt it.
What does that imply for unprinted images shot today? It means all those memories—faces and moments of childhood and beyond, and friends and families and special events—will not be seen by future generations. To me, turning moments into memories is at the heart of what our industry has always promised. I think it’s high time we live up to that promise and start making our customers aware of the importance of making prints from those images they deem most precious.
We’ve seen heartbreaking footage of folks sorting through the rubble caused by twisters, and there’s always a moment when a mom or grandmother finds a photograph or an album that she considers the most precious thing among her possessions. Cars are wrecked, walls are gone, computers are trashed and all the stuff of life is in a jumble, but the memories contained in those prints live on. Those prints offer solace in a time of great loss and are irreplaceable, as they convey emotions that no other object can hold. They are a legacy.
Even “serious” photographers, those who photograph for artistic purposes, understand this. In numerous workshops and lectures I have attended, many of the presenters admit that if you want an image you have made to last, make a print. Those who have weathered the stormy seas of the digital world have seen just how fleeting the life of an image divorced from a print can be. Their work is a legacy as well, and many are the regrets of those who put off making prints from their best images. They understand that even the sacrosanct RAW file format might well be unreadable down the road. Even more importantly, they have come to understand that future generations will probably not have the time or disposition, or even the software and knowledge, to go through the piles of discs and hard drives they leave behind.
I trust I’ve made my point. So where does that lead us? First, we have to admit that not educating the customer about the ephemeral nature of digital images is a disservice. Yes, that may rock some boats, but it can certainly start an interesting conversation. Second, we know a lot more about “archival” matters and materials than we did in the past; so part of the process is being candid about “best practices” in printmaking and print storage, display and album makeup. Third, just about every printer today has Wi-Fi or Bluetooth or some other capability that makes printing wirelessly from numerous devices easy. So incorporating cameraphones, tablets and the like using apps should be part of everyone’s photo knowledge. Printer manufacturers can play a big part in this.
Today, there are many, many print-on-demand book services that are a great way for images to be collected. Promoting and partnering with those companies would be helpful, as would simplifying software for the same. Dealers could promote both avenues (individual prints and books) and even offer service and support for bookmaking.
In addition, media outlets can play a big part in this—and not just photo magazines and websites, but placements in general consumer mags and sites, especially on “ancestry” and the like venues. Finally, industry groups and associations who understand the opportunities for the imaging industry in this campaign can get behind and support all of the above. The main idea here is to educate the consumer about why making a print copy of an image is so important and how they can do so easily without even knowing about color calibration.
Our business has thrived on turning moments into memories. That core idea supported many aspects of the industry and was essential to our appeal—and our prosperity. To forget that and surrender those memories to a pixel-only world is, in my opinion, to consign many of those memories to oblivion, and to turn our backs on our customers. In the rush of the digital world, we may have forgotten the real reason most folks take pictures, and what lay at the heart of our most essential promise—that we help people turn moments into memories that will last for generations to come. It was and should always be the main value proposition of our business.