I recently saw the 2013 version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The story in general is about a guy who daydreams his way through different adventures, in contrast to his non-adventurous life. (I can relate. My mind does tend to wander.) There was an earlier film starring Danny Kaye that I haven’t seen yet. (It’s recorded, but I haven’t seen it yet.)
In this version, our hero works in the photographic archives of LIFE magazine. The magazine is facing its final issue, having been bought by another company with designs on taking the publication online. Walter has been sent a roll of film by one of the publication’s famous conflict photographers. A search for a specific negative provides the basis for Walter to break out of his daydreams and actually pursue an adventure or two. The film includes many scenes supposedly of the LIFE offices, including one where we see Walter running past enlarged pictures of notable LIFE covers, until he runs past one where he’s been substituted as the astronaut.
This isn’t meant to be a film criticism. I enjoyed the film, but there were parts that more than strained believability. However, it was fun to have my own daydream about Walter’s job. Working in a photographic archive like LIFE’s would be amazing. Keeping track of and preserving the visual record amassed by those photographers would be an awesome responsibility. I’m just a few decades too late to find myself doing much in a working archive of negatives, slides and prints.
Today’s agencies, publications and archives are likely to work with digital materials rather than physical ones, but the purpose of cataloging and preserving those files is just as necessary. There are new dangers though. Prints and negatives certainly degrade if not properly cared for, but they often can still be viewed and their message received. Digital files can be corrupted by media failures, transient voltage anomalies, magnetism, etc., and the disruption can render the entire file unreadable. As software and hardware change, file formats and media can become obsolete and unreadable. Those images, unlike the physical ones, are likely lost.
Preserving the digital files is important, but it takes effort to monitor file status and to update formats and media from time to time. Unfortunately, in many publications the people who would most likely be devoted to that are being cut. Librarian and archivist positions are dwindling within individual publications. At the same time, photographer positions are disappearing too, leaving more photographers to work independently. Digital file management is more involved than putting prints and negatives in a box with a date and assignment title. Photographers, and the people who do research with photographs, need more training to make sure their files will be accessible in both the near and the distant futures. Without it, visions of who we are and what we’ve done will disappear.