Nine years ago this morning I was out dodging fallen trees and power lines, making photographs following what we had come to know as “the derecho.” The destruction was spread over hundreds of miles. Power was instantly out pretty much everywhere hereabouts. At my house, it would not come back for 10 days. Others did without electricity for longer, smack dab in the middle of summer’s heat. Still others were more fortunate and got their juice restored in a day or two.
The photograph accompanying this column was made for the “Weather Nation” channel, famous then as now for covering weather and not politics. It is by sheer dumb luck that I can show it to you, which brings up the real subject of my little screed today.
I’d planned on writing about the derecho itself but quickly realized that I couldn’t find the picture. Still can’t, really. The version shown here is the one mined from my email archive. I’d sent it to a friend a couple of hours after I took it. She was supposed to visit that weekend until I warned her away when the Weather Channel interrupted its normal shows to cover the storm.
The original exists here someplace. Thing is, I can’t find it. As it happens, I was already in the midst of trying to bring some order to my pictures. “I’ll fix it later,” I’d said for years. Later had now arrived.
There are in the neighborhood of a million image files stored on my computer. They include, based on a database count, about 310,000 pictures during four years making pictures for The Athens NEWS – enough to literally wear out two high-quality Nikon digital single-lens reflex cameras. Those pictures are in surprisingly good order, though they, like the others, can use some attention.
Many of us are making more photographs than ever before. Much of it is trash – even the best professional photographers end up publishing or printing less than 1% of the pictures they make. I save it all, because today’s picture of some street-fest moron pouring beer over his own head is a telling picture of tomorrow’s senatorial candidate.
(This something for young telephone owners to remember: That picture of you cross-eyed with your tongue stuck out, the one you immediately uploaded to the internet alongside the others festooned with little hearts and ponies and such, will be online someplace forever. Facial recognition software is getting exponentially better, as are search engines. It’s possible that you might one day want to have a job. If your prospective employer is at all diligent, child, you’re gonna have some ‘splainin’ to do.)
There are a couple of big boxes of family pictures upstairs. Some of them have captions, or at least the names of those depicted and sometimes the dates they were taken, penciled on their backs, and I thank the thoughtful ancestor who bothered to do that. Because the vast majority of them show people, places, and incidents that are now left to my family’s imagination. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but wordless pictures are, with few exceptions, worthless.
This is nothing new. The Eastman Kodak Company in 1914 began selling “autographic” film, for use in its cameras sold with the autographic feature – a little door to the film, at the bottom of the frame, in which the photographer could write something about the picture just made.
But most people never bothered to keep track even of their printed-on-paper pictures. Transparencies – slides to most of us – are even worse, because there’s little room for notes on the slide mount. This rendered them puzzling to those who came later. The only use to which I’ve seen them put was by the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, who would buy old slide collections at flea markets and junk shops. The father, Jason, would make up songs about the images on the slides and any labels he found on them. He and daughter Rachel would perform these songs in concert as his wife Tina projected the images onto a backdrop. Just guessing here, but that’s probably not the fate the photographers had in mind.
Lots of pictures, many of them mysteries. What are we to do? Actually, there’s an answer, at least for the pictures whose details we know.
Digital photographic standards include space in the picture files for information about the pictures themselves. One section, EXIF, contains technical details about the making of the picture. Another, IPTC, offers space for headline, caption, tags, copyright, and other useful things. If you enter the information here, future generations won’t have just your picture, they’ll know what the picture is about.
Ah, but how do your get the information into those fields? There’s a program for that. Several, actually, but I’m going to suggest two, both of which are very good and both of which are absolutely free. The first is Photini, developed by the very nice and talented Jim Eastman in England. Its sole job is editing “metadata,” the stuff of which I speak. It’s been my friend in bringing order to my hard drive’s photographic chaos. It’s been assisted by the large, multi-function digiKam, which edits metadata but also helps sort pictures and even edit them. (Both offer the ability to save the information in an external “sidecar” file. This is unwise, because it can then easily be separated from the picture to which it applies. So turn off that “feature.” Save the info in the image itself!)
Both programs have features beyond anything you’d expect. They are, again, free, with versions for multiple operating systems. If you make pictures, you should get and use them.
The future will thank you.