Wednesday, 25 August 2010

What does Martin Parr know?

Gathering dust, originally uploaded by westy48.

With a Bank Holiday looming the Guardian printed some advice from Martin Parr about how to take better holiday photographs. I really like the main thrust of the piece that your photo collection should not just be positive propaganda of family life, but should also reflect the fed-up children and moments when your holiday doesn't seem quite so good. Now that we're (almost) all shooting digitally this makes sense. With film each shot cost money, but taking more digital pictures is effectively free, and even if you fill a memory card new ones are cheap and a re-useable resource.

The last paragraph of the piece, however, doesn't fit in with how we use photography now.

And the other thing you must do is print them. We are in danger of having a whole generation – and this will continue into the future – that has no family albums, because people just leave them on their computer, and then suddenly they will be deleted. You have to print them and put them in an album or a box, otherwise they could be lost. And write captions. You might think you are going to remember what is happening in a picture, but you probably won't in 10 years' time.

I don't agree with the need to print. I'll admit that there is something satisfying about handing round a packet of 36 photos, but with laptops, smartphones, iPads and digital photo frames we're always close to a screen to view images in a new shared way. We've got drawers full of packets of Jessops prints, and a box under the bed with more. I definitely browse the old photos on my laptop a lot more than I rummage around in the box under the bed.

Parr's statement that "people just leave them on their computer, and then suddenly they will be deleted" is a bit odd, or maybe badly subbed. How will they suddenly be deleted? I'm no more likely to delete the photos off my computer than I am to chuck the wallets of 6x4s in the bin. Yes, my hard drive might fail, so I run back-ups. I'm not a back-up zealot, I don't have a daily or even weekly routine, but I do make back-ups and especially make the effort after loading a big new batch of photos from the camera such as after a holiday. I also have a Flickr account where my favourite photos go. As a paid account holder I could put all my pictures on the cloud for a full remote back-up which would be neat.

As for writing captions, well I used to scibble a not on the wallet of prints with a date and location (Northumberland 1994), but the meta-data with digital photos exceeds that by a country mile. Date and time, camera used and then in iPhoto I can tag who's in the pictures and add geo-location data too. I can find digital images very quickly, and have "Smart Albums" in iPhoto that help sort the 8,898 items (16.3GB of data since you asked) into usefully small collections.

I make a trip once a year to the photographer in town to get a few prints made to enter in the village show. That's it, the rest is staying digital. Am I right or wrong?


  1. I have to say I agree with Martin Parr - and not just because he is The Man. I suspect most people don't back up at all. (I'm quite sloppy but I do back almost everything up on Flickr as private photos). I think we're losing something because printing was always part of the process... the P in D&P. Negs got lost & trashed but prints tended to survive. Friends of ours had their laptop nicked - hundreds of photos lost forever. A certain manager skimped and bought a secondhand hard drive (I'd never buy a secondhand hard drive, laptop or toothbrush); it failed and he had to shell out on expensive data recovery.

    I do love browsing old photos on a laptop but prints don't depend on backups, they don't depend on migrating data, formats, new technologies taking over.

    I think we should do both. Archive them all digitally but print the best - and set the bar pretty low for what constitutes 'best'.

  2. I know that disagreeing with Martin Parr isn't the cleverest thing I've ever done. Prints are lovely, but I had three albums ruined by water when people in the flat upstairs left the bath running. And as you said the negs weren't anywhere I could find them.

    As I hinted above photography is also a lot more commoditised in the digital age. We don't pay for rolls of Kodachrome, we don't take the films in for processing and don't pay for D&P. Once we've bought a camera and memory cards that's it; photography is free, and taking the time to run off a CD, nip into the shop and hand over cash for some prints seems a bit eccentric.