As people fled Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we were struck by the things the evacuees chose to take with them. Almost universally, the first thing they grabbed ahead of the advancing storm was a family photo album. In this age of digital cameras, though, that got us to thinking: When your treasured family photos exist only as electrons, what do you grab-a box of CDs? Your computer's hard drive?
For some professional perspective on that question, we called George and Melinda Austin, who, as it turns out, will celebrate their 10th anniversary on Oct. 30 owning Silver Imaging Services photo lab, 215 W. College Ave. in Silver City. That means the Austins have survived the transition from mostly film to mostly digital, which is more than many photo labs can say.
The digital revolution in photography has really been over the past four years or so, Melinda told us, and it's happened much faster than industry experts had predicted. "It's been a major adjustment," she added. "A lot of little photo labs around the country have folded. We used to visit other labs in Tucson all the time, just to keep up with what they were doing, and those places aren't there any more."
When we brought up the hurricanes, Melinda happened to have just been listening to the news about Rita. "There was this little gal they interviewed. She said she was going to take her pictures and her pets and get out of there. If her pictures were all on her computer, what would she do, drag it off with her?"
As Silver Imaging has weathered the storm of digital photography, the Austins have tried to remind customers that-hurricane or no-it's still a good idea to print some of those digital pictures on good, old-fashioned paper. "People are adjusting to digital photography, too," Melinda observed. "They're trying to figure out what to do. They take lots and lots of shots, so many it might be overkill. Then they don't want to mess with all these pictures or choose what to print.
"It's all about time. People don't have enough time. A digital camera is fun and interesting and you can look at the pictures immediately, but ultimately it creates more things to do-dealing with all those pictures."
She suggested being a bit choosier about snapping that shutter in the first place, along with deleting any poor-quality digital photos right away. Then vow to print the best ones as soon as you can, to avoid a backlog that ultimately leaves even your most precious images only a wrong click or a zap away from oblivion. "We just had a woman in here the other day who'd lost a whole year's worth of baby pictures when her computer crashed."
(If you've mistakenly erased a photo on the flash-memory card in your digital camera, though, don't despair. Pull the card out of the camera and don't use it any more, Melinda advised. Special retrieval software can un-erase the picture. "That's one reason it's a good idea to keep two cards on hand.")
But don't think that just because you've stored your digital photos on a disk, they're saved for future generations. CDs can get scratched, and silver CDs (as opposed to the pricier gold ones) are especially prone to oxidation. DVDs oxidize even faster than CDs, Melinda warned.
Then there's the problem of finding a machine, someday in the future, that will read whatever format you've stored those snapshots on. Remember the five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk and Betamax videotapes? Even regular floppy disk are fast becoming obsolete. Who knows whether your computer in 2020 will still be able to retrieve your photos off a CD?
More immediately, of course, accidents happen. According to a national Harris Poll survey commissioned by PicturesMatter.com, 61 percent of digital camera owners said they had lost digital images in ways including:
The good news, we learned, is that you can still rely on hard copies, as long as you're careful-by which we don't just mean not dropping snapshots in the toilet. Not all paper, processes or even film is equally long-lasting: Black-and-white negatives taken at the turn of the century (when the 1800s turned into the 1900s, that is) still look perfect, while the color snapshots your dad took in the 1950s are fading faster than you can say "Howdy Doody." And prints you make at home with your $99 inkjet printer on typing paper aren't likely to last much longer than, well, the printer will.
Silver Imaging and other photo labs that have adapted to digital photography can take your digital image and print it using the same process as prints from film, on Kodak's "Royal" paper. "Yes, they're 'real' pictures," as Melinda put it-with a lifespan of at least 100 years. When Silver Imaging has to make prints larger than 8 1/2 x 11, they do resort to inkjet, but using the highest archival paper and ink, so the prints should last 50 years or more.
Even slides can now be turned into handsome prints. (Forget the fuzzy "interneg" prints from slides in the pre-digital era.) That's particularly good news, given that Eastman Kodak, the principal US manufacturer of slide projectors, ceased production in June 2004. Twenty years ago, Kodak sold almost 300,000 slide projectors; by 2003 that number had dropped to 18,000.
Melinda admitted to a soft spot in her heart for slide projectors, since it was at a slide presentation given by George Austin that she met her future husband. "He used to give such entertaining slide shows," she recalled-these were not, evidently, like your Uncle Harvey's slides of the family's trip to Sea World.
The fateful slide show was of Utah scenery, as Melinda remembers it. George had discovered a love of photography shooting pictures of the Gila Wilderness, then spent five years as the photographer for the Sunspot Solar Observatory near Alamogordo. He spent another nine years at a photo lab in Santa Fe, then the couple decided to move to Silver City, where she'd grown up.
"There was one photo lab here, but it was on its last legs, so we saw a business opportunity," Melinda recalled. "At that point, everybody was sending their film out; there wasn't even a Wal-Mart. Six months later, two other photo labs came in, but neither made it.
"It's not an easy business, but it's one we certainly love."
And you never know how the photo business might change next. Melinda told us about an industry conference the Austins attended two years ago, where a speaker from the Brooks Institute said he thought at some point the industry would discover the safest way to store digital pictures. Naturally, the crowd leaned forward in anticipation at this. One day, the expert predicted, the industry will turn around and start storing digital pictures. . . on film.
"After all," Melinda finished her story with a chuckle, "film is one of the safest storage media ever invented."