The Art of the Digital Age, Sharing Photos!

Welcome to the “Fun with Smartphones Project.” Pull out your smartphone and share your photos!

It’s formal title is “Larry McNeil and the Art of the Digital Age. Through the use of a camera phone and social media sites like Facebook, art photographer Larry McNeil explores the art of everyday life as perceived by a contemporary indigenous person. Presenting hundreds of his own snapshots made around Washington, D.C., informed by his unique visual aesthetic, McNeil invites NMAI visitors—in person and virtually—to add their own commentary to his photographs and to upload their own snapshots to his Facebook page.”

National Museum of the American Indian calendar website.

I’d like to make this fun and interactive, because the emphasis is having us collectively figuring out what “The art of everyday life” means to you. I’ll be at the Smithsonian National Musuem of the American Indian on Saturday and Sunday October 25th & 26th if you want to show up and get feedback with your smartphone photos. We could play with different ways of making photos and just see what unfolds.

At various times I’ll likely ask you to photograph something thematic and share it on the site(s). I think that this will be fun and maybe even thought provoking, but we’ll see, because this will be a group effort.


On Facebook just look for “Larry McNeil” to participate. Here’s what my page will look like:


Link to Larry’s Facebook page:


On Instagram, look for “1_photographic” to participate. Here’s what the page will look like:


Link to Larry’s Instagram page:

When sharing photos on Instagram, please use the hashtag symbol #, followed by my username 1_photographic. It should look like this: #1_photographic.

If you find yourself in Washingtion DC, please take the time to stop by our exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and see the photography exhibition up titled, “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson!”


Selfies are wildly popular on Facebook, so I decided to make one especially for this project. It’s me at the National Museum of the American Indian in DC, and even cooler, made with a Nokia Smartphone. How cool is that?

Please join us by sharing photographs. Thank you, and get those photos uploaded! All user agreements are between you and the companies, not McNeil or the Smithsonian NMAI. All McNeil is doing is organizing a place to share photographs on existing social networking sites. No legal agreements or any agreements are made with anyone with this project and no liabilities may be extended to any party. The legalese language is made between you and the user agreements at the social networking sites.

Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Read more.. Friday, October 17th, 2014

The Slippery Magic of Photography, Nikon and Leica IIIF

Magic stuff
For me as a creative person, my imagination is still what separates me from everyone else. After that, it’s a way of seeing the world that maybe involves the stories that I want to tell. Maybe not, I’m still kind of trying to figure out the creative process, even after all these years. I think that’s what makes it fun, is that once you think you’ve got it all figured out, something new happens that makes you rethink everything. Reality checks are good.

If one could reduce some of this to it’s essence, I suspect that the creative process has to do with your own personality, the stories you’ve experienced, the things you’ve seen along the way, and maybe your own style of making images. Everyone’s brain is hardwired in a specific manner, and your photography is a visual manifestation of that, which is what I find to be very slippery, mysterious, and sometimes even kind of  magical. I just call this “the sometimes-magic of photography.”

The sacred sign of the aperture

The sacred sign of the aperture, from McNeil’s public art “Tonto’s Earthen House.”

Cameras (including cell phone versions)
I’m asked by a lot of people about cameras and advice about which ones to buy, which brands stand out from the crowd. Usually it’s a person who wants something that can get better results than the usual bland and generic look from a cell phone camera. Don’t get me wrong, in my opinion, the most convenient cameras being made are in cell phones, but they do have their limitations, especially when you want a photograph that involves your imagination.

This seems kind of like name-dropping, but what the heck, some brands are definitely better than others. I’m reminded that musicians have their favorite instruments, and some of them are likely quite pricey because they can do things that others can’t. It’s cool to play keyboards on an iPhone app, but I’ll bet you my best camera that artists don’t use the iPhone app for recording their best material. Same with photographers; the cell phone cameras are fun, but it’s not what we use for our real stuff. As for myself, I use a very powerful and easy to use Nikon D800 for everyday use. It’s lightning fast, has a large, beautiful image sensor and a cool array of professional lenses. It allows me to imagine a scene and make it a reality, something that cell phone cameras still lack; the ability to make a visual manifestation of what you imagine. Sorry, but that one is an epic fail, as my son would say.

McNeil learning Photography back in the day… 
When I was attending Brooks Institue back in the late 1970’s, it quickly became clear that the flagship Nikon F2 was the 35mm camera for us aspiring pros to be using. They were rugged, fast and had the best lenses, a killer combination that was hard to beat. I couldn’t afford one yet, but got one the next class session. I wanted to learn photography with a classic camera, so I got a 1953 Leica IIIF rangefinder camera with a Summitar 50mm F/2 lens specifically for the intro creative class at Brooks. To me it was like getting a 1953 Fender Stratocaster to learn the guitar. Hey, I wanted the classic mojo man, to learn how the photographers back in the day made their photographs.

Leica IIIF

Leica IIIF

The first thing you notice about the Leica rangefinders from the 1950’s are that they feel like  what cameras should feel like. Small, precise and made with the best craftsmanship of the times. Many of the gears were machined brass, not cheap stamped metal, and it had a heft to it that felt good and natural. It exuded a low-key authority and classiness, and the shutter was a quiet near silent click. It was a stealth camera. Ironically enough, what I liked best about it was that it forced you to slow down and take more time to compose your photographs. I used a different camera for speed, this little baby was for contemplative work where I took extra time to carefully compose the photographs.

Lets not kid ourselves, using a Leica was also like wearing a tailor made designer suit, not some off the rack thing from a department store. Does anyone really care about this when looking at photographs? Probably not, but the point was, I did.

This Leica IIIF was designed at the dawn of 35mm photography when cameras were set to evolve into something dramatically better, and I wanted to learn a critical part of what photography was about with this camera. It was a fun journey of exploration; one that hasn’t stopped yet, regardless of whatever gear you’re happening to be using.

As mentioned above, I’ve gone digital and love what the media can do these days. This photograph was made with a Nikon D800 DSLR with the beautiful 85mm Nikkor F/1.4 prime lens. This lens has a depth of field, or bokeh that is very appealing, because it renders the background to various degrees of softness, something that you can’t do with generic cell phone cameras by the way. Shot in my little makeshift studio with north light and fine coffee. Bottom’s up, buddies, and here’s to making more cool photographs.

Story and Photograph Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Read more.. Thursday, July 10th, 2014

Naming New Work & Mighty Nikon Platinum Photograph

Platinum photographs look cool. Actually they can look a bit warm too, depending on the mood of photo goddesses and gods on that particular day. In reality, it’s such a temperamental process that even when you have the scientific aspects precisely correct, one can still get dramatically different looks that seem to defy logic. This drives some photographers completely mental, and many simply abandon it and move on to something easier, like quantum physics.

People who are willing to let go a bit, and go with the flow from what the photo goddesses send your way generally get good results. In other words, it’s critical to have a look or feel that you like and strive for making a visual manifestation of it, yet be open to the fluidity of what the process has to offer it’s practitioners. Be steadfast yet flexible, kind of like how you raise a teenager, and when everything seems beyond redemption, try again, don’t give up.

Larry McNeil in the darkroom

Larry McNeil taking a quick break in the darkroom while making platinum photographs for the “Indelible” exhibition. He was getting great results that day because he made a proper sacrifice at the shrine to the photo goddesses. With Chilkat blue gloves, no less.

Platinum photographs, or platinotypes are a 19th century photographic process where you mix up a liquid photographic emulsion that contains real platinum and other light sensitive compounds. You coat the paper with this emulsion, let it dry and then expose a negative with ultraviolet light onto the paper. Sounds easy, right? In reality, it’s quite complex, but in my opinion is worth the battle to make it work because you end up with a look that is so unique. Each photographer who uses this process starts to have their own visual aesthetic or tastes with how they want their prints to look.

Please go see the work for yourself at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian from now until January of 2015. Here is a link where you can see  all of the photographs in the exhibition, “Indelible: The Platinum Photographs of Larry McNeil and Will Wilson.”

"Sunrise Stroll Across the Wastelands" platinum photograph by Larry McNeil.

“Sunrise Stroll Across the Wastelands” platinum photograph by Larry McNeil.

I’m partial to sharp detail even when the look is a little soft because of how the emulsion interacts with the paper. The photographers who used soft focus lenses in the 19th century were practitioners of Pictorialism, where the platinum photographs were often “dreamy looking” where soft focus lenses ruled the day and it was a highly romanticized look. My photographs are anything but romanticized, but I like to think that they have a certain poetry to them, but with a hard edge, both visually and metaphorically.

This Nikon photograph was designed to be in both color and made into a platinum print. There are a multitude of variables with making the transition to a digital negative, but in my opinion, it's way easier to make the shift into digital negative form when the photograph itself originated from a digital photograph, as opposed to scanning actual film.

This is where “the rubber meets the road” as they say. If you can’t make a decent digital negative, maybe it’s time to walk the Earth until you get your mind right. It’s when you see whether the photo goddesses are partial to you. If you still get bad negatives, perhaps you ought to consider just using a cell phone camera or get on your knees to the photo gods and do some serious begging to get back in their good graces.


The moment of truth. If you’ve got an exceptional negative, you are now free to start getting abused in the darkroom. Sorry, I mean if you have a great tonal range and it’s sharp, you can sneak into the darkroom before any bad mojo catches up with you. Your platinum photograph is going to be the same size as the negative.


The Act of Naming New Work
Like any creative work, my photographs nearly always earn a title, and I view a title as another creative aspect of the work itself, sometimes offering a subtle layer of meaning. Naming new work is always a challenge, because we generally want something “short and sweet” as they say, without being too blunt or factual. It’s a fine line, because hopefully the title is also perhaps a little poetic and a natural reflection of the work itself without seeming to force anything.

Since this was a collaboratively made photograph with my son T’naa, it was only fair that we named it together. We bounced a lot of ideas around in my office, including why the photograph looks like this, and thought that maybe a title inspired by one of his Metal Bands would be good. Just by dumb luck, T’naa was taking a college writing class at the time and he explained that some classic writing verses have what’s called an “iambic pentameter.” For an example, Shakespeare used an iambic pentameter which consisted of five pairs of two syllables (or iambic feet). This means that there is a quantified rhythm to the English language.

Having established attitude, rhythm and meaning, we started writing down a list of words; some humorous, some a bit presumptuous, and some just plain way too serious for it's own good. I insisted on keeping "Raven" somewhere, because after all, he's the one walking around the scene.


Having established attitude, rhythm and meaning, we started writing down lists of words; some humorous, some a bit presumptuous, and some just plain way too serious for it’s own good. I insisted on keeping “Raven” somewhere, because after all, he’s the one walking around the scene. I still like a plain little notebook for brainstorming ideas and have stray notebooks around the studio.

Ready for what we came up with after all this? Drumroll please, and preferably from a Metal band: “Sunrise Stroll Across the Wastelands” 

We both liked it because the idea of a sunrise is about hope, a literal new day that we can make our own. The word “stroll” seemed perfect because it infers something leisurely and maybe even kind of carefree, like the idea of a relaxed walk through a park or garden. Much like the photograph itself, the words are juxtaposed with the last word “wastelands,” which is what helps add momentum to the idea that the photograph may be a bit satirical. When we tossed this title into the mix it made both of us laugh out loud, so we knew we nailed it.


Smithsonian Website Indelible
I hope you take the time to visit the Smithsonian’s Indelible website for the new platinum photography. Not only that, I hope you get the opportunity to see the exhibition in person, because there is a subtlety to the photographs that is difficult to reproduce on a web page. Each photograph has a very cool set of audio recordings to accompany the work.

From the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian "Indelible" website.

From the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian “Indelible” website.

“Raven is known among the Tlingit to have created the world. Of the deepest platinum black, he surveys wreckage strewn across a post-apocalyptic landscape, casting a shadow upon a smashed camera. Although the bleak setting suggests photography’s demise, Raven instead announces a new beginning for the medium. With Raven’s connection to the camera, McNeil asserts the power of the power of American Indians to create their own photographic representations of and for themselves.”


Audio files!

Audio files where McNeil talks about the photographs. Check them out!

The audio files were fun to make. Scroll down on each image page and listen to McNeil as he shares his wisdom about such topics as Raven’s Boneheads, or Baskets Before Time. Each platinum photograph has it’s own set of audio files. Get yourself a nice mug of coffee and a comfortable chair to listen up.


And Don’t forget about the Nikon that makes cool digital Negatives 

This high resolution Nikon D800 makes stunning digital negatives for platinum prints!

Nikon D800 DSLR & Nikkor lenses

This high resolution Nikon D800 makes extraordinary digital negatives for platinum prints. After comparing scanned film with photos shot directly from a digital camera, I’ve been finding that the digital negatives are very, very high quality. For whatever reason, the negatives are more forgiving for photos originating from a digital camera. I suspect it’s because you don’t have to make the transition from film grain to pixels, and the pixel to pixel transition is a very cool lateral shift where image quality is not compromised in the least.

The 36 megapixel sensor makes highly detailed photographs that can easily rival a large format scanned negative. Toss in some cool Nikkor lenses and you get great digital negatives. This Nikon is going to make my platinum printing faster without compromising image quality, which is what us photographers are constantly chasing around the planet. With ravens.

Now go check out the Indelible exhibition. Do a road trip, man.


Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.



Read more.. Friday, March 14th, 2014

"Tonto's Earthen House," Global climate change

Tonto’s Earthen House is a hip hangout. It’s new public art that is also a part of a fundraising auction back home in Tlingit country.

"Tonto's Earthen House," was made for a public art project in Boise and is around 12 feet wide.

Aldona Jonaitis Ph.D., the Director of the University of Alaska Museum of the North wrote a very brief description of “Tonto’s Earthen House” for a catalog produced as part of the Tináa fund raising auction for the Sealaska Heritage Institute:

Tlingit photographer Larry McNeil, well known for his compelling and often humorous and satirical collages, has become increasingly concerned by the global climate crisis that so few people today seem to be taking seriously, and fewer still endeavor to do something about.  His current series, “The Home Planet,” is addressed not so much to today’s audience, but more to people born after 2031. By that time, people will wonder why we were so careless with our environment.

According to this photograph, part of the explanation is our insatiable appetite for gasoline. This complex image first appeared in Boise as a 12 foot wide public art project and incorporates Tlingit imagery — the Chilkat weaving design juxtaposed on the “Chilkat blue” 1959 Cadillac and silver engraved bumpers — as well as the ambiguous pair of Tonto and the Lone Ranger (here inside a jail).  Since he’s an Indian, Larry is supposed to be spiritual, so his “sacred symbols” are the strip of film drawn onto the wall, and, next to it, the swirling, “cosmic” image of an aperture. The self-referential camera sits in the back of the car, ready to take more photos. Indicators of the climate crisis include that gas-guzzling car as well as the bicycle Larry used to drive to work before being destroyed by a 5000 pound SUV.  Sitting at the wheel of the gas-guzzling car is Larry himself, who wears a particulate mask woven from spruce root “because it’s a health hazard to pedal my bike in the thick carbon dioxide emitted from cars.”

Chilkat Blue

Killer whale silver engraved bumper.

Spruce root particulate mask.

Sacred signs.

Commuter bicycle.

I named my digital desktop "Larry's Place." It's where there is always good coffee and interesting conversation. Our son T'naa helped make some of the photographs like the bike that were a part of the storyline.

I was a bicycle commuter for five years prior to being hit by a monster SUV, which is why the bicycle is a crucial part of this and other works. This is a saddle bag with new inks for my big printer.

Raven coffee is a requisite for cool art! The mug was a gift from our good friend and Keet Gooshi Hít sister Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie.

It's often said that technique informs style; many of the components were shot with a Nikon D800 camera and a Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 "prime time" lens. Photo of Larry hard at work by his assistant T'naa Z. McNeil.

“Tontos’s Earthen House” was made as part of the Boise Traffic Box Public Art Project, and is installed across from the downtown theater.

Gunalshéesh, thank you everyone, including my home team whom helps make all this work possible: Debi McNeil, my wife, partner & studio manager, and T’naa McNeil, our son and most excellent photographer’s assistant.

Please help support the Sealaska Heritage Institute's Tináa Art Auction on February 1, 2014.

“Tonto’s Earthen House” will be amongst many other contemporary masterpieces of Northwest Coast art. The auction is designed to help raise funds for the construction of the Walter Soboleff Center.

Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Read more.. Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

Pixel Lounge Workshop

In reality, anyone who knows me realizes that the title “Pixel Lounge Workshop” is an inside joke, and you’d better be awake long before 5:00AM to keep up with this kid.

Today is day two of a 2 day digital art workshop that I’m leading as a guest of the Evergreen Longhouse Educational and Cultural Center at Evergreen College. We are using the very cool facilities of the Evergreen College Photography area, which resembles a low-key lounge, yet is very efficiently designed with state of the art digital gear. Thank you to everyone for helping to make this happen, we are enjoying it very much.

Okay, tell me that this doesn't seem like a comfy lounge. The ambient light is just right for viewing the monitors so that you don't get eyestrain, and this is just the front part of the lab. To really make it feel like a pixel lounge we need some hip jazz to fill in the mood of working with cool images. Come on over, and bring a nice espresso and images to work on.

Gato Barbieri playing “El Parana.”

Patrice Rushen, Stanley Clarke, Ndugu Chancler, Oleo (Sonny Rollins)

Here’s to a great day of making new art!

Story and Photographs Copyright Larry McNeil 2013, All Rights Reserved. All musicians retain their own copyrights on Youtube.

Read more.. Saturday, November 9th, 2013

Hasselblad User Stories (and photos)

It seems that the photography cultural landscape is changing more quickly than we can track it these days. Hopefully, this will be a collaborative blog entry by 'blad users. Please share your "Hasselblad V" user stories here. Email me one square photo (1000 x 1000 pixels @ 72dpi) and a 100 word caption. My own caption is at the bottom of this page, awaiting the snapshot to be made later today. Here is a Hassleblad 500/CM flagship camera in rainbow colors.

Hasselblad quit making the last of their ever-venerable medium format film cameras recently. In reality, this has become kind of a non-issue, because nearly everyone’s shooting mostly digital these days. Especially us pros, who were the main Hasselblad users. Even Hasselblad themselves have made the transition from film to digital photography, so what’s the big deal? Maybe you can help answer this question.

I suspect that for some of us it may be a bit bittersweet because the Hasselblad defined some of our lives when we were starting our careers, and it could be as simple as that.

On the other hand, these Swedish ‘blads were like weapons of choice that we took on the creative battlefield, and we knew them inside and out, could field strip them blindfolded, or customize their compact modular design to fit our own needs. But most of all, they were reliable and we staked our livelihoods on their definitive high performance precision. With a Hasselblad, you simply did not miss shots. Year in and year out. The sharp Carl Zeiss lenses were what other cameras wished their lenses could emulate or be like when they grew up.

Many of these classic German Carl Zeiss lens designs have never been improved upon, even today. They got it right over 50 years ago, and the Zeiss lenses were such pure and clean lens designs that pretenders have been lining up for decades, trying to match them. Carl Zeiss remains the lens benchmark for all lenses, even in this digital age.

Your Story

I’d like to try and make this a collaborative piece, written by Hasselblad users. Share your Hasselblad story, and maybe even a photo of yourself with it. Don’t be shy, and again, please email me 100 words or less and a photo, and I’ll post it here. I’ll start out and put mine here first. I hope you’ll consider participating. Thanks.

Larry McNeil:

I was 22 years old when I became a regular Hasselblad shooter, and had just started making photographs that had substance, presence and strength. Sure, this came from me, but I was using a Hasselblad to make many of my photographs, so it's kind of like we were partners and it wasn't just a camera, it had spunk and spirit, and saw us through the day. Buying your first Hasselblad was a leap of faith that you were going to make it as a photographer, so it meant that you believed in yourself, and even if you crashed and burned, you'd still have a cool camera. Photo by T'naa Z. McNeil

Allison Corona:

I started using a Hasselblad for a project called "Spaces of Cultural Comfort" my junior year of college. I didn’t have my own but I was lucky to borrow one from the Art Department at school. I initially wanted to use it because I knew that my subject matter was very detailed and I wanted to get the sharpest images I could possible get. The Hasselblad was perfect and I'm glad I went with it instead of taking the easy way out (read: digital). In the end my photographs weren’t always tack sharp (user error) but I fell in love with the camera and the process nonetheless. Photo by Melissa Hartley.

Please email me your photo & story! 1000 x 1000 pixels/ Photo of yourself with ‘blad/ Color or B&W, 100 word caption.

Thank you.


Story and Photo Copyright Larry McNeil, All Rights Reserved, 2013. All Photographs by everyone else on this page reserves the copyright for their own photograph.

All Hasselblad logos are Copyrighted by Hasselblad, Inc.

Read more.. Monday, May 6th, 2013

Kodak's Slow Motion Downfall

If there is any one product that has to do with my own personal success (and millions of other photographers too for that matter), it is Kodak. When I was going to Brooks Institute School of Photography, it seemed that nearly everything we used was Kodak yellow and red. Kodak fixer could indeed fix anything, we were only as good as the Kodak film we shot, and color was Kodak vibrant. Like many other professional photographers, I love the company and what it has done for the culture of photography. So it with great sadness that I learned of Kodak’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January and their intent to exit the digital capture business.

It’s like Apple dropping computers or Jack Daniel’s switching to milk. It ain’t fittin, as they say. You really know that the world’s gone to hell if Kodak isn’t making photographic stuff. Fuel up the rocketship.

Kodak essentially invented the concept of “the snapshot,” with the very first Kodak camera in the late 1880’s. For the first time, nearly anyone could make a photograph. Their motto was “You push the button, and we do the rest.” For all intents, Kodak WAS photography.

Kodak's webpage announcing their reorganization. This still seems a bit surreal, and almost like it's from the universe next door and not ours. I imagine that we'll know it's real when we can't get Kodak products anymore. I dread that day.

A lot of us photographers have been watching Kodak’s slow demise for quite some time now, and are not all that surprised that it has come down to this Chapter 11 status. It’s not a happy or unexpected realization by any means, but we still hope that Kodak will rise out of the ashes. If I were a Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, I’d look into the section below titled “Did Kodak make the nails for their own coffin?” I’m sure that there are many nuances to this story that the public is not privy too, but us professional photographers have been  bearing witness to a few decades worth of missteps that more than likely had something to do with their downfall.

Just last week I was shooting Kodak Tri-X black & white film with a wide-field camera. Not for nostalgia's sake, but because I needed some cool cityscape photos in black & white.

Abridged Kodak Story

In order to understand the above webpage describing Kodak’s exit out of dedicated capture devices, you really need to understand who they were and examine the core of their essence, so here goes, please bear with me. This story could actually be published in book length, but since this is a blog, here is the McNeil condensed version (part of this blog entry was plucked out of my lecture notes from when I taught a History of Photography course).

In the early 1870’s, photographers couldn’t even buy pre-made negatives, film did not exist. This is a special area of research for me, as I have a collection of glass plate negatives that marks the time at the cusp between when photographers had to make the collodion hand coated negatives and when they were able to simply purchase ready-made dry plate negatives. Photographers had to hand-coat their own glass plates (which was closer to alchemy than science) and essentially made their own negatives.

Large format hand coated wet plate collodion negative that predated the manufacture of film. Negative by Felix Bonfils at the ruins of Capernaum, from the McNeil collection. You can easily see where the photographer was carefully painting the negative with a black opaque material to render a white sky, because the collodion wasn't capable of a proper exposure of the sky while photographing a landscape. The wet plate collodion negative was only sensitive to blue light.

I learned many of the nuances of glass plate negatives from a scholar at the George Eastman House by the way (she spent the afternoon carefully examining my 1870’s & 1880 glass plate negatives made by the famous Felix Bonfils). The concept of being able to buy photographic film hardly existed prior to Kodak’s arrival. There were a number of international companies that made dry plate negatives, but it was Kodak who transformed it into an amateur phenomenon, which created millions of new photographers. It means that more than any other company, Kodak transformed photography  into a common practice for nearly anyone to use, and they did it on a global scale.

When I think of Kodak, I think of the entire culture of photography since the late 1800’s, and especially how they’ve dominated nearly every phase of the culture and industry of photography for so long, most notably during the entire 20th century. In this sense, Kodak is nearly a quintessential or archetypal model of American industry. Kodak obviously didn’t invent photography, but rather stepped in nearly 50 years later to make photography easily available to the world for the first time.

Kodak round photo from the first Kodak camera, dated late 1800's, from the first generation of cameras that used roll film. Library of Congress, number 3g04797u. This is an uncropped download that shows a visual aesthetic with the first Kodak snapshots (the photo is a bit askew, but this is the way it was presented from the archive). Kodak learned early that women were primary consumers of their products, partly because women made most of the family snapshots, and partly just because they were damn good photographers. Therefore, Kodak aimed much of their advertising and corporate strategies towards women.

A quirky bit of history has the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin teaching bible studies with lantern slides in the mid-1880’s. He was looking for a way to make this easier, and discovered that he could transfer the texts onto a type of flexible film called nitrocellulose and filed a patent for it in 1887, two years before Kodak’s patent for nearly the same thing. Goodwin contended that the patent was rightfully his, and sold it to the Ansco company, which sued Kodak for it and won a five million dollar judgement years later, in March of 1914. This little scenario had to do with the invention of roll film, which essentially acted as a literal basis for photography for over 100 years, plus made motion picture film possible.

Kodak mass produced film to create the revolution in photography that made it available to nearly anyone. The key phrase here is mass availability, ease of use and affordable prices. Roll film is what made this happen, and it is likely the number one technological advance that moved photography into popular culture.

A scholar could make the assertion that George Eastman was a visionary, and his powerful personality had everything to do with Kodak’s success as a large corporation. This is a critical stance, because I’ll also make the claim that without a visionary leader at the top, a company can flounder, and when important aspects of a company are left to committees to determine, things can go drastically wrong. Eastman died in 1932.

Eastman was an astute business person, and could be compared to the Bill Gates of his day in that instead prioritizing camera production, he set Kodak’s priority on the manufacture of film. It’s kind of what Bill Gates and Microsoft did with computers regarding selling the operating system, and let others fight it out with building the computers. It meant that Kodak became the de facto near-monopoly for the sale of film, and in fact held many of the roll film patents.

Throughout the entire 20th century, Kodak dominated the industry and culture of photography. It became clear in the 1940’s that other countries could manufacture the high-end cameras more affordably and Kodak gave up that part of the industry. Up until then they made a number of professional level large format cameras and lenses, in addition to cameras such as the legendary Ektra and classic Kodak Bantam Special. It became clear that Japan could manufacture high quality cameras at more affordable prices, so Kodak gave up that segment of the camera market and prioritized affordable snapshot cameras that of course encouraged the use of high volumes of their film.

Kodak Bantam Special from 1936. In my opinion, this was the most beautiful camera ever designed. It is ultra-compact (around 3 inches wide), made of precision machined parts with an aluminum shell, was fast to operate and made high quality photographs on 828 sized film. It costed $110.00 new, which translates to $1,793.75 in 2012 dollars (according to the Consumer Price Index inflation calculator).

The Kodak Bantam Special was designed by the legendary designer Walter Teague. It had a lightning fast f/2 lens that allowed high quality photos to be made with the slower ISO Kodachrome film. This was a camera for the true photographic connoisseurs who only wanted the best of the best, which of course means that I use one, even today (B&H sells 828 film for this camera). The pre-war versions used the German Compur shutters; Kodak was starting to use German parts for some of their cameras.

By the mid-to late 1900’s it was clear that Kodak really didn’t have any real rivals with film manufacture, even as there were dozens of other excellent film producers. Kodak was relegated to the production of amateur cameras (millions of units per camera model), having given up on the manufacture of professional quality cameras in favor of amateur versions, where volume was the key to success. Not only that, but as mentioned earlier, the cameras were not the key income producer, it was the film that Kodak was targeting with their largest volume of sales. Kodak also had the near monopoly with professional quality films too, it’s where pros went to get the film that defined their livelihoods. Kodak spent millions of dollars on research and development to assure that they stayed on top as the company that had a reputation for making the best films in the world.

The Kodak Brownie was produced in many incarnations and is one of the all-time volume sellers for cameras in the world. They were made of cheap materials and easily mass produced to sell to the masses. Everyone was supposed to be able to afford one, even people in the lower classes who couldn’t afford luxuries; Eastman’s philosophy was to make photography available to everyone. Many photographer’s first cameras (including myself) were Kodak Brownies.

Kodak’s most legendary film was the Kodachrome slide film, which was only discontinued last year as a casualty of the digital photography revolution. Their other flagship film was black and white Tri-X film, which is still manufactured today (and is what I ask my own students to use in our black and white film class, by the way). By the mid-1970’s Kodak sold an astounding 90% of the film in America; nearly a monopoly. These were the good times, and darker events were to soon unfold.

The Center for Creative Imaging in Maine was "THE" place to learn digital photography back in the early 1990's. It's where I learned many aspects of digital photography; it was an awe-inspiring place to learn, because Kodak spared no expense in making it the state of the art facility in the world for digital photography.

Did Kodak make the nails for their own coffin?

1st Nail: Ektachrome & the advent of Fujifilm

To begin with, I’ll make the assertion that these seven Kodak missteps happened because there wasn’t a George Eastman or Steve Jobs type visionary leader at the top to cut through all the nonsense and simply see that things got done, period. No messing around or heads would roll. I’m betting that not only did heads not roll, but there wasn’t any one entity held responsible for this long list of failures. My bet is that it was the board of directors trying to do some very difficult tasks via committee and it simply did not work. Steve Jobs would have told you straight out that some things you simply do not vote on, and in order to make innovation a reality, you must have a very strong-willed, tenacious leader taking charge and seeing that bad things absolutely did not happen, at  least not on your watch.

So in a very real sense, not only did bad things happen, they also happened in slow motion over many decades, and by this January’s Chapter 11 filing, there was hardly anything anyone could do to stop the downward spiral.

In my opinion, one of the big Kodak missteps happened throughout the 1970’s. For some reason, Kodak did not apply a high level of quality control over their Ektachrome films. Many of the 35mm versions of Ektachrome were simply awful with obvious color shifts and had a tendency to fade fairly quickly.

One of the drawbacks with Kodachrome was that it took a long time to process, and pros wanted a film that could be processed quickly and without the highly specialized labs that Kodachrome required. Even though it was the best film ever made, Kodachrome took too long to process in this speeded up world. I can remember sending packets of film to the closest Kodachrome lab in Palo Alto via many of the new overnight shipping companies that were springing up at this time.

Ektachrome slide film was supposed to fill the need for fast, same day processing and it only required a more basic process called E-6 chemicals and processing equipment. From what I understand, it was also supposed to use less toxic chemicals than the Kodachrome compounds. At any rate,  many of the Ektachrome versions fell right on their faces as dismal failures. Professionals were beyond belief that Kodak would release a substandard film, and voted with their feet by simply not buying the film. In the meantime, a company named Fujifilm in Japan was working on producing a high quality transparency film that could use the easier and more affordable E-6 same-day processing that didn’t have to be shipped to a specialized lab.

Fujifilm stepped in during the early 1980's and filled the gaping void left by Kodak.

Fujifilm came forth with a beautifully rich film that had the high color saturation, superfine grain, and accuracy that came nearest to the best of what Kodachrome had to offer. Pros didn’t have to deal with the awful Ektachrome anymore and Fujifilm became a nearly instant bestseller and took over a large segment of the film market that Kodak had owned for decades. It should have served as a wake-up call to Kodak that they were vulnerable to outside companies taking over a market segment that Kodak thought was invincible. Fujifilm only got better, and during the decades of the 1980’s and 1990’s Fujifilm had the audacity to displace Kodak and their E-6 line of transparency films. Kodak’s response was too little, too late and Fujifilm’s sales skyrocketed.

2nd Nail: Disc film… hush, sweep it under the rug, quick

This is more minor, but worth mentioning. Kodak was experimenting with a new film format called Disc Film. Kodak was answering the call for even more compact cameras, and it needed a more compact film to make it work, which is why Disc cameras and film came on the scene. The photos were too grainy even under the best circumstances and it was eventually discontinued due to low sales. A number of other film companies also made disc film, but none of them really had any success with it. Disc film was notable however, because it reflected the consumer’s desire for more compact cameras that made good photos.

3rd Nail: The Polaroid debacle, oh no

In my opinion, Kodak made a mistake by using the Polaroid instant film technology without bothering to buy rights to their use. The courts agreed, and in 1986 Kodak had to discontinue the manufacture of their instant films because it was infringing upon Polaroid’s patents.  This was a significant third strike against Kodak in the 1980’s and photographers and consumers were starting to wonder if perhaps Kodak was losing an edge in the world of photography. Kodak was still a powerhouse though, and could have recovered easily from these setbacks, but a downward cascade was set in motion.

The digital repreive

The bright spot in the above was that Kodak was taking the lead with inventing digital technology that was to set the stage for the transition to digital photography. In this sense, Kodak was in fact playing the role of being a visionary company by imagining the future of photography. Kodak came forth with a flurry of inventions and new patents for digital photography, and also found themselves collaborating with a large number of new players in the emerging field of digital photography.

By the early 1990’s the desktop publishing revolution had taken off, and programs such as Photoshop quickly became industry leaders on the computer side of the equation, as did Apple computer for the desktop of choice for digital photographers. Kodak released their first consumer level digital cameras in the early 1990’s, but they were fairly expensive and the public still didn’t have the infrastructure to really use the digital photographs. It wasn’t until 1997 that Kodak was able to market a megapixel point and shoot digital camera for under $1,000.00, so digital photography for the general public still wasn’t a reality yet because they were too expensive for the average consumer (it was roughly $1,400.00 adjusted for inflation in 2012 dollars).

Kodak DC120 digital camera that was the $1,000.00 price buster in 1997. I know this camera well, because I purchased the model immediately previous to this one, but it was badged with the Chinon brand, the ES-3000.

In 1995 the ES-3000 was priced at $1,400.00, and since I was going to make digital photography my livelihood, I purchased one. It was large, awkward and generally clunky, but hey, it was digital! It made 1/3 of a megapixel photos and represented the first generation of digital cameras. As I recall, it sucked up a tremendous amount of battery power in just a few shots and you always had to carry a lot of extra batteries with you. It had a 38-115mm equivalent zoom lens and didn’t have an LCD screen.

Kodak also collaborated with companies such as Nikon to manufacture some of the first high-end digital cameras designed for professional use. Many of these cameras were hybrids between film camera bodies and digital components. Most were nearly twice as large as regular 35mm pro cameras and costed thousands of dollars, which put them out of the reach of average consumers. It meant that in the 1990’s, digital photography was still too expensive for the huge amateur market and film was still dominant.

This literally looked like someone took a Nikon film body and screwed on the Kodak digital components. It was 1.5 megabytes of pure digital power.

This was a curious time in Kodak’s life, because it was at the crossroads of two photographic technologies, film and digital. I suspect that it made for a number of fierce debates on their board, because on one hand they had their lucrative film products that was their mainstay for so long, and on the other, they had the newer digital technology to explore. I don’t know this for a fact, but suspect that there was an internal war where the digital group was a minority, and likely had to fight for every little bit of funding for their endeavors, and the film group was not convinced that the digital group deserved the funding it was requesting. At least this is what it looks like from the outside. I’d love it if someone were to do the research to learn how this inside conflict unfolded over the years up until just now, when Kodak had to declare Chapter 11 protection.

4th nail: Internal conflict of film vs digital technology

This is the murkiest part of Kodak’s downfall and is admittedly little more than pure speculation. It appears that there was an internal conflict going on with Kodak and they simply couldn’t agree on whether they were to be a film company or a digital company, so their decisions with both seem to have been compromised by each other, but who really knows? The board of directors knows, but I’m betting that none of them will ever admit as much. We only have clues to this assertion, and I’ll bring the Kodak DCS 14n forward as an example.

5th Nail: The abrupt shift to digital photography (oops)

Kodak was doing some very exciting things by the early 2000’s, including releasing a flurry of small point and shoot digital cameras that were very solid and just as good, if not better than their competitors.  All of a sudden, the market was flooded with tens, if not hundreds of digital cameras made by dozens of companies. The digital revolution was in full swing and consumers could buy a digital camera for less than a few hundred dollars. The years between 2000 and 2003 were little more than a blur regarding digital cameras because the market was flooded with them nearly overnight. All of a sudden, consumers were buying more digital cameras than film cameras and companies like Kodak were caught totally unprepared for the abrupt change from film to digital photography. Nobody thought that it would happen in the course of just a couple years and companies were unprepared for the dramatic hits their film divisions would take as consumers stopped buying film and film cameras.

6th Nail: The Kodak DCS 14n (the elephant in the corner)

The Kodak DCS 14n caused quite the stir among pros, because for the fist time (you can’t count Contax because they never released their version) a sensor the size of a 35mm frame of film was released. This has come to be known as a “full frame sensor” because most of the DSLR sensors are smaller than this (it also meant that lens focal lengths were accurate measurements again and did not have a factor to measure as with smaller sensors). Another camera company was set to release their version of a full frame sensor too, but it costed $8,000.00, three thousand dollars more than this Kodak 14n.

Critics called it a medium format camera because it had the unprecedented size of 14 megapixels, more than twice the size of most DSLR’s. It was a huge leap and even now, nearly a decade later it is still considered a large image sensor.

The Kodak 14n became “a nail in their coffin” because Kodak did not allocate the proper amount of research and development resources to make it successful. There were many very negative deficiencies that held the 14n back from being successful. It had excessive noise even at moderately low ISO settings, which meant that the camera was only useful in bright sunlight or with studio lights. This frustrated pros because they wanted to believe in Kodak and their high-end 14n camera; everyone desperately wanted this camera to be a success, an answer to their digital challenges. By this time, photographers were already used to high quality results from DSLR’s and Kodak was expected to easily surpass the quality of the smaller megapixel DSLR cameras.

By early 2003 it became clear to nearly everyone that the 14n was a failure. It caused a sensationalist stir in the online photography community, because by now there were a number of review sites where users could publicly share their conclusions about the camera and users were very vocal about the 14n’s shortcomings. Rants were common from users, as were photographers coming to Kodak’s defense. Kodak eventually quietly abandoned the camera, never publicly conceding defeat with it.

The 14n could be viewed as a key pivotal point with Kodak, because they had the potential to take a decisive lead with this camera, and it could have been a flagship digital camera that set the standard for future cameras from all manufacturers. The view from professional photographers was that it appeared that Kodak was not willing to do what it took to make this camera a success. This saddened many, and exasperated the ones who invested in the 14n camera bodies and lenses. It irked them that Kodak would give up on this camera that held so much positive potential, and a rift was made between professional photographers and Kodak, and many of them turned their backs on Kodak for good.

7th nail: Overproduction of digital cameras and the iPhone camera

Another element of the digital photography scenario (that Kodak obviously can’t control) is that there is a glut of digital cameras being mass produced by nearly everyone. There are literally hundreds of models being released every year, all striving to become the most recent bestseller. Many of the models are nearly identical to each other and after a certain point there appears to be a clear lack of real innovation. Sure, there are lots of very cool models being made, and I just got a new one about a year ago that I like a lot. It appears that a few companies are distinguishing themselves quite nicely with models that are ultra-compact, yet go into manual override easily so that you can have a very precise control over the look of your photographs. Some even have a certain “coolness factor” that also jumps into the fray, just to make things more interesting.

This sea of digital cameras nearly became moot when Apple released their iPhone with a digital camera a few years ago. It’s first incarnation was low resolution and couldn’t focus or adjust the brightness levels. It was a low quality camera, a joke to real photographers. However, what it did have was an easy method to share its photos, either via Wifi or over the mobile service. It was ridiculously easy to share photos and it coincided perfectly with the social networking sites like Facebook. For the first time, way more photos were being shared online than being printed. I hear that people on Facebook are sharing 4 million photos per day. This means that people are crazy about the iPhone and other cell phone cameras.

Apple makes some of the coolest computers on the planet, but I've never been all that excited about their iPhone camera. I notice it still doesn't have any lens protection, which means that it's photos will be soft in no time, due to a scratched up lens.

Hardly any of the camera manufacturers picked up on this Wifi trend, even as photographers asked for connectivity. Camera manufacturers ignored these requests for Wifi with digital cameras, and as a result, the digital camera bestseller is the one with this feature, the iPhone. I think that even today, most manufacturers still don’t get it. Kodak was a player in this scenario and could’ve come forth with a bestseller if they responded, but this is just my opinion.

At any rate, digital camera sales are still not nearly as high as they could be because of the widespread use of the iPhone. Apple has become a digital camera bestseller, even with their low quality camera, because they led the trend with digital connectivity and ease of use. Any photographer can tell you that the most popular camera is always going to be the one you can just pull out in a few seconds, and today that is the iPhone. My advice still stands for Kodak and all the other camera companies; if you want to have a bestseller, make it with built-in Wifi that is easier to use than the iPhone combined with a higher quality camera. Easy as pie, what are you waiting for?

Conclusion: Can Kodak make a comeback?

All of the above is what I meant by a “slow motion downfall,” because it appears to have been a downward cascade over a number of decades that slowly  eroded Kodak until it is at the place it is today. As a professional photographer, I still do not want to give up on Kodak, even as it seems more likely that it will be cannibalized into a number of smaller entities.

I think that the irony in all of this is that at least a part of Kodak realized that the digital revolution was coming and it was critical to take the lead with it. The sad part appears to be that the leadership didn’t heed the findings of their own research teams.

I’m not sure what to think about Kodak’s disappearance from photography, except that it is not good. As of this spring 2012 semester we and many other universities still have a film component to our photography curriculums. Next week I am evaluating the Kodak Tri-X film from our students and a part of me is wondering how much longer it will be around. A long time I hope.

Here’s to you Kodak, and like I mentioned in the first paragraph, Kodak essentially defined my profession and for that I will always be sincerely grateful.


Story and photos Copyright Larry McNeil 2012, All rights reserved.

Read more.. Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

The Zen of Saving your Digital Photos

I don’t mean saving your digital photos in the biblical sense. If you have bad photos they’re going to hell regardless.

Gold DVD-R's are worth their weight in, well... gold.

Empty your digital camera’s memory card and burn the photos to a DVD-R disc. Same with the photos from your cell phone because I’m sure there are lots of cool ones there. Burning your photos onto gold DVD-R’s are the best way of saving them for the future. There is NO close second place here. Everyone always brags about how cool and fast digital photography is compared to film, and I’d agree for the most part. However, the one aspect that is more tedious is the archiving. It drives me kind of near the edge to have to do this all the time, but it’s the best method by a long shot. Take my word on this one.

I like to transform it into a kind of a Zen experience, where you put yourself in a quasi-meditative state and do a lot of them at once. Some of us even have our own choice composers to listen to as we merge into this higher plane. My own favorite is John Coltrane’s “Live in Japan” double album. His live version of “My Favorite Things” always sends me directly into the zone. As the raven flies.

Coltrane's Live Album has been known to open the portal to the universe next door, so be prepared to hold onto your chair or something.

Anyway, get some of the DVD pages so that you can put them all in a notebook. Organize them so you can find specific photos easily. Some people simply organize them by date. If you’re a pro, you use something like a photo database program like Lightroom or Aperture. In the big scheme of things, it doesn’t matter how you do it, the main thing is to just get them onto the gold discs.

Do this as one of your new year’s resolutions. Care for your photos. Ommm.

Story & Photos Copyright Larry McNeil 2011, All Rights Reserved

Read more.. Friday, December 30th, 2011

Dr. Walter Soboleff, Gunalchéesh

We have much to be thankful for. Sh tugáa haa ditee yagéiyi át kaax.

(From the Tlingit Phrase of the Week from the Sealaska Heritage Institute website.)

Our thankfulness stems from having known Dr. Soboleff and being the recipient of his decades of service to the community doing so many distinct tasks for the community that he so obviously loved.

Dr. Walter Soboleff at the pulpit of the Memorial Presbyterian Church in Juneau, where he became Alaska's first Native ordained minister (photo courtesy of First Alaskans Magazine).

Thinking about Dr. Soboleff’s passage “Into the forest” as they say, left me sad. His service to the Church and Native organizations intertwined with so many families in Southeast Alaska. He performed our parent’s wedding ceremony back in the 1940’s; it must’ve been soon after he earned his degree at the Theological Seminary from the University of Dubuque. My only baby picture has my dad cradling me and my mom holding my hand on the same day that Walter baptized me in the Presbyterian Church. Everyone is in their Sunday best and it’s a happy photograph.

Like many other teenagers of the day, my mom, Anita Brown McNeil was one of his students in the church bible school in the early 1940’s when she was still a teenager. Our family connection with Walter goes back long before I was born.

These are some of the graphics that I made for the Sealaska Annual Report. I really love the way the raven is marching, the ancient weaving designs, including the killer whale teeth on the right border.

In January of 2009, I got a call from Todd Antioquia, the Director of Communications for Sealaska Corporation. He asked if I was interested in doing some commissioned art for their upcoming annual report. The theme had to do with “the spirit of perseverance,” and they wanted me to photograph three elders who epitomized this spirit and use my visual aesthetic with the compositions.

One of the elders was Dr. Walter Soboleff. We talked about how we wanted the final print to look, and I loved the idea of making prints that honored these three elders from Southeast Alaska (Dr. Soboleff represented Tlingits, Dolores Churchill represented Haidas and Mary Jones represented Tsimshians).

The first step towards this project was making the portraits, and I shot them all with a set of portable strobes set up in one of the meeting rooms at the Sealaska building in February of 2009. There was a heavy snowstorm and Walter was attending meetings all day and it was challenging to fit me into his busy schedule.

I had a good idea about how I wanted to portray Dr. Soboleff in his collaged print because I knew that he had a gentle sense of humor and a sharp wit. My challenge was to try and capture this fleeting moment. He came into my makeshift studio with a very neutral expression, like he was deep in thought about something else. Having worked for various projects with Sealaska over the decades, I knew a lot of his colleagues very well, so I started asking about which one he left in his dust today, and that made him actually laugh. I told him “I bet it was so and so,” and that left him grinning. It was a good natured banter, and I got him to laugh again by saying “I bet ‘so and so’ came back from lunch looking like he needed a nap,” and he laughed again, which is the photograph that I ended up using. We both enjoyed the good-natured jokes, because in reality, his colleagues are the hard driving types who don’t put up with much nonsense in their lives.

When I'm shooting portraits, I'm really fast behind the camera and try to capture the very elusive looks that I'd preconceived.

I was finished with the photographs in pretty short order, and he stood up, shook my hand and gave me a nice complement. He’s had his portrait made dozens of times by pros over the years, and he said “You’re good. You’re really good.” I told him, “I ought to be, I was baptized by one of the most intellectual ministers in Juneau.” He laughed again, because he clearly remembered both my mom and grandmother, and of course, baptizing me all those decades ago.

I was very happy with how Walter's collage turned out in the Sealaska Annual Report. It was a labor of love, as were the other two. My intent was to have Walter making eye contact with the viewer, allow their eye to go in a general circle and back to him again.

Walter’s gentle spirit is what made the print work. Here is to you Dr. Walter Soboleff, for having made this a much kinder, better world for all of us.

Sh tugáa haa ditee yagéiyi át kaax.

Story Copyright Larry McNeil, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Read more.. Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Digital Photos for the Next Hundred Years?

If you’re like nearly everyone else, you’ve got shoeboxes filled with old family snapshots and photos under the bed or in the garage. Hey, it’s what we do. Or rather, did. Lots of people have not really thought about whether their digital photos will be around in the next decade, let alone 100 years from now. The photography film paradigm has shifted and nobody is left to fill the void with digital shoeboxes. Can’t we just stuff all the memory cards in a bottom drawer or something? Ironically enough, it’s one of the things I’ve heard that some people are doing with their digital photos. Other people are uploading their photos online somewhere; that’s good enough, right?

My great-granddaughter's Cyberdude, hand delivering my Gold DVD's to Juneau in the year 2131. The discs are well over 100 years old, and thanks to a smarty-pants relative, the first generation of digital photographs from the McNeil clan still exists.

So what is the best way to archive your digital photos? Your hard drive? Nope. Online storage companies? Definitely NO. Memory cards? Nope. A shoe box? The bottom drawer in the spare bedroom? The storage shed? Your camera? No, no, no and NO.

Yes, Optical Media is the answer. It’s the only digital media that is guaranteed to last decades. This means either CD-R, DVD-R or Blu-Ray recordable discs.

What makes me a Mr. Smarty Pants about this? I’ve been teaching digital photography since 1997, which was also before most photography schools had a digital photography curriculum, and before most of them realized that a digital transformation was soon to take place with photography. My own photography, research and art as both a scholar and artist was and is about transformation, so it all morphed from a cosmic digital enigma to something that made a bit more sense. I had my first digital photography curriculum approved by an art school in 1993. This makes me a bona fide authority on digital photography, and my core intent here is to simply help you make your digital photographs last as long as possible, and hopefully to have a bit of fun along the way.

Scientists have coined the term “Digital Amnesia” to note the reality of lost digital information that is already going on, especially with outdated digital technologies, such as floppy discs (remember those?) and the former pro media such as Zip, Jaz, Bernouli, etc. In my opinion, hard drives fit in this category because they lose so much information, especially as people get new computers, or hard drives corrupt data. There is a booming business out there with hard drive data recovery, which should be an indicator of their overall reliability. I’ve lost entire folders of photos over the years, and luckily got most of them back with software hard drive recovery programs.

Hard Drives: I never imagined that hard drives would incite some photographers to be such impassioned digital zealots. You’d think that I was disparaging their mother’s honor or something. I’ve had photographers literally get red-faced angry when I told them that hard drives are not any good for long-term photo archiving. One even emailed me what amounted to a long, tedious hard drive manifesto. Daang. Ok, this is not personal, step back, take a deep breath and repeat this digital mantra soothingly after me:

Hard drives are the fastest way to upload your memory cards, and some people confuse this convenience for them being the supreme digital media of the universe. Well, (ahem) they’re not. Hard drives have an appalling habit of crashing and losing data, it’s a part of their mechanical persona. They are only designed to last a half a decade at best, especially if you give them hard use. When you think of it, hard drives are at their essence kind of a crude 20th Century phenomenon. I think they’ll be replaced by some other media by the end of the decade.

How old is your oldest hard drive? Be honest. I’m willing to bet that it isn’t older than five years. I can guarantee that your hard drive won’t last twenty years, let alone over a hundred. Take my word for it. Hard drives are convenient temporary storage, nothing more. People have lost millions, if not billions of their precious photographs to hard drives. Don’t join them.

Same with back-up hard drives. So what? It’s still a hard drive. On the other hand, using a backup hard drive is a sound archiving protocol. Just remember it’s still temporary and not expected to last long, so is not suited for long-term archiving.

Online storage companies use hard drives, so forget them too. A couple of years ago, one of the professional storage industry leaders went out of business unexpectedly. Thousands of professional photographers lost millions of their best digital photos that they thought were safely archived. Can you imagine that? All the company could say was, “Oops! Sorry, they’re all gone! By the way, we’re not liable for the loss and we’re also broke.” Photographers had zero recourse and could do little more than whimper about a tough lesson, which was DO NOT USE HARD DRIVES FOR PHOTO ARCHIVING. PERIOD! This goes double for online photo sharing sites, like Facebook and Flickr. Websites in general have a very short shelf life and disappear startlingly fast. Disappearing websites could be the subject for not only a blog entry, but an entire book.

Back to Optical Media. What makes them better than hard drives? The easy answer is simple longevity. They are the longest lasting digital media out there. Nothing else even comes close. What makes them last longer is how they store digital information. First of all, they’re non-magnetic (hard drives are sensitive to anything magnetic) and the digital information is literally burned into the dye substrate with a laser, which makes tiny physical pits within the disc.

Not all discs are created equally, and the cheaper run of the mill DVD-R’s and CD-R’s are made with aluminum and an inexpensive dye material sandwiched into polycarbonate. These are the name-brand discs that you typically get from an office supply store. They’re high quality, but are not the best. The top-of the line discs that photographers should be using are called Gold discs, such as the ones made by Mitsui. Instead of an aluminum layer, they use 24 karat gold, which more than triples their life, and they also use a special Phthalocyanine (try to say that fast three times) dye, which has been rated to last over 100 years. They cost substantially more than regular DVD-R’s or CD-R discs, but on the other hand, this is your photo archive we’re talking about.

This here is Gold, folks, designed to last over 100 years. The good stuff. I found a reputable seller on ebay who sells the Mitsui DVD-R's for around $100.00 for a spindle of 50, which makes them around $2.00 per disc.

Women have been the family photographers for nearly 100 years and manufacturers learned this early on, targeting their ads towards them, right up to today with camera phones. Our mom shot the most beautiful Kodachrome 8mm home movies back in the 1950's and I must confess that I have them in a shoebox in a bottom drawer.


Part 2

The nitty gritty stuff

Burning discs is easy these days. It just takes a bit of patience. If you’ve got a Mac, Toast Lite is a great program to use for burning discs. You essentially just drag and drop folders, name your disc and burn away. It does take patience though. I find that it’s easier to use DVD-R discs because they hold 4.7 Gigabytes of storage, which is nice. Name your disc with your last name and whatever your subject matter happens to be.

Organizing your photos prior to burning them

I like to organize my photos via the heirarchical database order, just because it’s easiest to remember. For an example, the starting point is a single folder on my desktop named something easy to remember, like “Digital Cameras.”

The easiest way to navigate to your photos is to make a single folder on your desktop named something like "Digital Cameras." Then make a subfolder for each camera you have.

I’m a big believer in simplicity and ease of use. Things should be fast and easy. Since I’ve got a bunch of digital cameras, I find it’s easiest to navigate using the above folder system. Use whichever one is most logical for you though. Sometimes if I have specific subjects, I’ll make a folder specifically for that; for an example, when I went home to Juneau last summer, I made a folder called “Juneau” within the June of 2010 folder. Just use whatever folder system makes the most sense to you.

Digital Cameras (a step back for a moment)

Set your camera to it’s highest resolution. We’re aiming for getting the highest quality photos here, and if we’re going through the trouble of making photos in the first place, you may as well make the best ones you can. Get the largest memory cards you can afford. They’re pretty cheap these days and it’ll make you grow horns out of your head to have a full memory card while in the midst of shooting something cool.

Many of the little point & shoot cameras are now pretty darned good too; use the same archiving model for all your cameras.

Mobile phone cameras are becoming very common, and some people use them more than a regular digital camera, just because it’s always right there in their pocket. You still need to organize and archive these photos. If you’re like me, you have thousands of them and lots of them are very, very good.  Both your regular digital camera and cell phone camera shoots high quality video now too. You’ll find that they make very large files, and it is important to archive all of these too. Just use the existing “Movie folder,” on your computer and make subfolders within it and organize them in much the same way as your photographs and burn them to DVD-R discs too. You may want to dedicate an external hard drive to just photos and videos since they take up so much drive space and archive them to DVD-R’s as you go along.

Many digital cameras have what is known as the RAW file format. It’s the best file format out there, and if your camera has this capability, I’d strongly advise using it at all times. You can also shoot a RAW file and jpeg simultaneously, which is a cool option if you mostly do things like uploading your photos to online sharing sites. If you don’t want to mess with RAW files, you can still shoot them and archive them for later editing. RAW files are great for low light and tricky lighting situations. It can render good quality photos from poorly exposed images, especially using a program like Lightroom.

Archiving Programs & RAW Converters

You don’t necessarily need a photo archiving database program. In theory, you can just make all your folders and burn them directly as you go along. Easy as pie, no fuss, no mess, no interface to muck things up. On the other hand, photo archiving programs do additional things like perfecting a photo (color corrections, sharpening, resizing, reduce noise, making slideshows, galleries, etc.) and doing RAW photo conversions.

Most pros use some kind of  photo editing and database program for their archiving, and on the professional end it’s dominated by Adobe’s Lightroom, and Apple’s Aperture programs. They’re really database programs that are optimized to view, edit, organize and render RAW and other image files. Some people really like Apple’s iPhoto program, but it’s an amateur lightweight program and limited with how it organizes photos. It’s also arbitrary and heavy-handed with how it limits your ability to control your archive. My advice is to avoid it and cough up the money for Lightroom when you can afford it.

The cool part about the Lightroom site is that it has lots of free and easy to understand online videos that teaches you how to use the various components.

Aperture is a direct competitor to Lightroom. They're both very sophisticated and excellent programs for archiving your photos. If you like iPhoto, you may want to gravitate towards Aperture. If you're a pro, you'll find that more people in the industry are using Lightroom, and to fit in with this crowd you may want to use this instead of Aperture. They're both great programs.

When you use these programs, you still end up with folders to burn to your optical media. If you can do all this editing stuff prior to burning your discs, consider yourself a professional calibre photographer, and can also call yourself a Smarty Pants Photographer. Congratulations. However, like mentioned above, if you’re an amateur who just wants to ensure that your precious family snapshots are going to last as long as possible, just do the organizing and burning to discs. That’s more than enough.

After the Burn

After you’ve burned your discs, you can write on them with a sharpie pen. There is some debate about getting ink on the discs themselves, so try writing the information on the tiny blank area next to the center hole. It’s pretty small, but you can write some basic information there with a fine-tipped sharpie. Don’t use labels, it just takes up lots of time to print and likely isn’t good for the discs anyway. Always handle the discs by the outside edges, making sure you don’t get any fingerprints on the surface areas.

DVD-R pages are way easier to use than the jewel cases. The jewel cases will start using up too much space. If you add index pages, you'll start seeming like a real live photo archivist. Store your discs in a cool, dry dark place.

The last step has to do with more of a professional archive. Pros make two of each disc, one to store off site and the other to use on a regular basis as working discs. The theory is that just in case anything disastrous happens to your house or office, you always have a duplicate set somewhere else. I definitely do this, because my livelihood depends on digital photographs and images. Not only that, my images are very valuable and represents nearly all of my work since the mid-1990’s and it would indeed be a catastrophe to lose any of them (the sound of knocking on wood here).

Another solid archiving protocol for pros is to make prints of the images you want to last the longest. Kodachrome was rated as being the longest lasting color film, but they’re discontinued now. If it’s a black & white print, make a platinum or palladium hand-coated photo emulsion; they last much longer than silver prints. Many of the newer digital printers, such as Espon, use inks that are rated for decades of life, much longer than regular color darkroom prints. Wilhelm Research does scientific research on the stability and preservation of digital photographs and films and makes their findings freely available to the pubic via their most excellent website.

My last bit of advice is to approach this as a long-term endeavor and to start your archive a few discs at a time, especially if you feel overwhelmed. Start with your most recent photos and go backwards, one disc at a time. You may want to wait until you have a few months worth of photos to archive, and look at this as something you do three times a year or something like that. If you’re a pro, you do this archive the moment you’re done shooting, or the next day.

Have fun, and here’s to having your great-granddaughter enjoying your photos in the year 2031 and beyond.

All text and photos Copyright Larry McNeil, 2011, All rights reserved. Please get permission from McNeil prior to using any of it. Thanks.

Read more.. Tuesday, January 25th, 2011