How do we think about the “age” of a photograph?

I have been thinking/writing a lot recently about how photographs “age.” I do not mean physically, though that is an important question. I mean in terms of how we experience them as old or new. Recently, I blogged about my wife’s current project, photographing three or more generations of Indian women and turning those portraits into animated, multi-generational family portraits. Last week, I wrote about the importance of making actual, physical prints in order to preserve important memories. More recently, I was corresponding with a friend about his images, which were made decades ago. We were trying to figure out when an image changes from something contemporary (even if not recent) into a historical document. Since most photographs capture a moment in time, all this pondering makes some sense. On the other hand, it may just as likely be that I am extra sensitive to the passing of time, having just had a birthday.

One part of this came up in the context of an online discussion I was following on how to value the archive of a photographer after their death. (The question was being raised in the context of the tax deductibility of donating a photographer’s archive to a non-profit organization.) I am neither a lawyer nor an accountant (nor do I play one on TV,) but after all my reading, it seems safe to say that an archive of images, in and of itself, no matter how large, has little value as a donation, in the eyes of the IRS. There appear to be two major factors that make an archive more valuable in terms of a tax-deductible donation, in the eyes of the IRS. One is an established track record of licensing the images for publication/ stock. The other is the existence of vintage images with some track record of selling those images.

The first point, in term of stock sales, is easy to establish by looking at the business records of the stock agency or the photographer licensing the images in question. The second one, about vintage prints is a bit tougher and it got me thinking, exactly what is a vintage photograph? Most folks assume that vintage means a photograph that was made by a famous photographer from the 18th, 19th or early 20th century. In fact, the accepted definition of vintage is a photographic print that was made soon after the original capture of the photograph. In no great surprise, just how soon is subject to debate.

In my own archive, I have a lot of vintage prints from my earlier projects, which were done in black and white. Those are obviously vintage prints, because I made them myself, from the original negative, shortly after the negative was made (without using any intermediate mass production printing process.) Back when I was doing black and white printing, I would often make ten (or more) fiber-based prints from the same negative at one time. I realized that once I had gone through the trouble of figuring out exactly how to dodge and burn for a given negative to get a perfect print, I might as well do that over and over in one session. That way, I might spend a whole day on just one negative. When I was through, I ended up with ten (or more) fiber-based 8 x 10s, ten (or more) fiber-based 11 x 14s and twenty (or more,) RC based 8 x 10s. The RC prints were used for promotional purposes.

When I started shooting slides, I shifted to sending out duplicate slides for promotional purposes. Today, with digital imaging, I send out files. So, the vintage portion of my archive stops rather abruptly when I stopped making physical prints in large numbers. I still occasionally make color prints from my color slides or digital files, but nothing like I used to.

As for the broader question of when does an image change from a contemporary into a historical document, one of the emails about that question, which came from Michael Colby, went like this:

The passing of time gives captured moments a life of their own. I look at photos that I’ve taken in the last 7 years, since I started shooting again with my first digital SLR and they don’t have that sense of captured time for me because they are still contemporary or current for me. The photos scanned from 35 year old slides give me the feeling of a time “beyond” me, captured forever on film. I have that same feeling viewing photos like the iconic Dorothea Lange photo, “migrant mother” at a Dorothea Lange retrospective.

So, how old is old? Images of my daughter today are contemporary but ones that are a few years older, they feel historical.

I know that my own black and white work all “feels” historical to me. I have long believed that black and white tends to add an unconscious time (and abstracting) element to the viewer’s experience of any black and white photograph.

Similarly, images of my daughter, before she was ten, similarly “feel” historical, but the ones after she turned eleven or twelve, do not. Is that because she is now looking at colleges and I am feeling “old” or is it something else? My work from China, made in 1986, feels historical, both because of the time that has passed and the changes that have taken place in China since I was there. My oldest work from India feels similarly historical but not my recent work. The weird thing is that some situations I have photographed recently in India “feel” much older than the actual images.

It would be a great social science research project to formally analyze how individuals, groups and cultures determine when an image changes from a contemporary into a historical document. I cannot do that myself, but I would love to hear from readers on how they make that determination, consciously or unconsciously. Is it simply a given number of years? Is it based on changes in or the demise of the subject in the images? Or, is this determined by some other factor? I await your thoughts!

One response to “How do we think about the “age” of a photograph?”

  1. As i was reading your blog, i realized that how we think of the age of photographs (or the of the images) and how we experience them as old or new is probably almost all a matter of “context” which of course is an elemental part of each of our subjective nature (colby’s law: almost all knowledge is subjective)

    If someone was viewing a montage or essay of photographs of 8 year olds, including photos of your daughter at age 8, with images shot less than a year ago to ones shot 30 years ago (of 8 year old children), would they “feel” historical” to the viewer or would they all feel “contemporary” without the clues of context?

    I think part of those contextual clues are personal knowledge of the subject and time and setting, and as a result our own indivdual emotional reactions to the images. The other contextual clues are fashion, style, etc.. A photograph that includes a setting in a kitchen with avocado green or burnt orange appliances and surfaces is likely to “feel” dated to most of us because of the cues that, at least to most N. Americans of a certain age or experience, that cry out “1970s.”

    Does an Ansel Adams iconic B&W of the US Southwest or of Yosemite “feel” dated or historical to someone who currently 20 years today if he/she doesn’t have the context of knowing who Ansel Adams was or when the photographs were taken?

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