When you look back on any event in your life, significant or otherwise, your memory of it will be hugely influenced by the pictures of that event. In many cases, your actual memory of the event may be pretty vague but because you’ve got a bunch of prints fading in a box that you’ve been meaning to sort out for years, the event lives on in your mind.
There must be some truth in the claim that as you get older you have greater difficulty remembering what happened yesterday but can recall events from decades ago as if they’d just happened. We all know aging relatives who couldn’t tell you what they had for breakfast that morning but show them a photograph of an incident that involved them when they were a child and they’ll tell you everyone else in the picture and no doubt drift off into fond and detailed recollections.
When I look back over the hundreds of thousands of pictures I’ve taken, going back longer than I’d care to admit, I’m often amazed. I’m amazed that the prints are still intact, I’m amazed that after many house moves I’ve hung on to them and I’m amazed at how pictures can stir such emotion and memory. I know I’m not the only one who, in the event of a house fire, would rescue their photographs before anything else. Most ‘things’ can be replaced but pictures illustrate our past and almost explain how we’ve got where we are today, they are irreplaceble.
Since I started Red Dog and working professionally, all the pictures I’ve taken have been digital. As most are sent to clients electronically, used online or sent to publishers, I very rarely print a photograph. Sure, they’re all backed up onto DVDs and stored off-site on a distant server, so they’re safe and I can access them whenever I want or whenever a client requests an image from the archive. But it’s not the same as having albums or even a box full of fading prints and packs of negatives that you can spend hours reminicing over when you’re meant to be tidying the spare room or cleaning out the attic.
What will happen with the modern generation of photographers who may never print a picture, never have to wait for their prints to come back from Boots or whoever? Will they keep them on an ever growing hard drive of images, carefully labeled with dates, keywords and subject titles? I think not, it’s just not the same. In the same way that a music download is never the same as an old LP cover, a digital image is never the same as a faded print. There’s something about the physicality of a print that makes it live, that brings the memory of the subject alive.
When I look back on some of the prints I’ve kept for years, I really wonder why. Some of them are simply shocking; blurred, out of focus, dreadful exposure, poor composition, unfathomable subject matter, but still I won’t throw them out. Apart from realising that my technical ability has improved, they are treasured vignettes into the past; people long forgotten, places never returned to and events that live on purely through those pictures.
So, a plea; whatever you do, wherever you go, make sure you take plenty of pictures. Even if you don’t print any of them, in years to come you’ll be pleased you did. I don’t know how good your memory is, but the pictures you take now will be your memories of the future.