The Vivian Maier Lesson




Undated, New York, NY

This is one of the most fascinating photo-related stories of late.

In 2007, John Maloof, a 26-year-old real estate agent and amateur historian, found 30,000 of photo negatives at a Chicago estate auction. The photos depicted streetscenes in Chicago of the late 1950s and the 1960s, each scene meticulously dated and placed on the back of the photo. The photos had come from a storage unit the photographer had stopped paying rent on.

The photographer was Vivian Maier, a New York girl who moved to Chicago in 1956 to begin working as a nanny for various affluent North Shore families for the next forty years. Her nannying work enabled her to enjoy early morning drives on her moped, along with a Rolleiflex camera.Although Maloof could not locate her, he posted the photos to his blog. A search yielded no results until Maier died in mid 2009, and a brief obituary was printed. She had been in a nursing home.

Retrospectives followed, as did two documentaries: “Finding Vivian Maier” and “The Vivian Maier Mystery”. But a lesson is somewhat lost. Vivian Maier’s photos were lost — and rediscovered fifty years later. They were fascinating — fascinating because they showed a different world and fascinating because they show it in crisp tones of a physical negative.

Currently, nearly everyone — even some of the greatest names in photographic pantheon — takes their photos digitally. They do not last and they will not last.

Firstly, there are hardware issues: I still have photos stored on a Floppy Disk and CDs, but my laptop does not come with drives for them anymore. The time will come when USB drives are not backward compatible anymore (already my external hard drive has issues with an USB 1.0 on work computer).  USB itself might be replaced by a superior technology (as Floppies had been). But an uncomfortable truth is that CDs, DVDs, hard drives they all inevitably fail.

Then, there are software issues. Will the computer of 2064 still recognize raw or jpg formats? The Economist had a great article two years ago. Already, I don’t have a program on my computer to read the earlier ebooks (.lit), and .epubs and .mobis will go that way too. Last week, there was a popular post on Reddit that encapsulated the problem tautly, and encouraged people to start printing photos.

When it comes to photography, printing is not really a solution — prints fade and get destroyed too.  Vivian Maier survived because her photo negatives survived.

19 thoughts on “The Vivian Maier Lesson”

  1. I am sorry, but you are making false equivalences on the digital vs film duration, and conflating the past with the future as an easy predictor.

    there is no hardware, nor software issues, if one cares for the files the same way that one can must care for film negatives an their storage. furthermore, digital offers a nice redundancy, which means, it is a good idea to scan negatives.

    that anyone has files that are no longer readable has to do with a lack of care, than a fault of the medium.

    it would be nice if blogs stop promoting fears from the dawn of the age of digital storage in PCs. as it should be, the onus is on the owner as formats in files and storage changed. these days, can you really point to examples of fast-changing storage, or file formats?

    RAW formats do vary a great deal, and DNG offers sensible insurance. there is room for improving this insurance, if camera makers move away from proprietary formats. still, do you think it will be so hard for current formats to not be feasible in the future?

    « Will the computer of 2064 still recognize raw or jpg formats? »

    yes. why not, if you think not? what would be the reason why not? remember, examples of the past do not prove the future, unless there is no change into the future. you think there is no change in technology and archival? with that in mind, I leave you with XKCD:

    carelessness is carelessness, regardless of the medium.


  2. I follow all your posts through e-mail, great stuff. Loved your article and questioning of this subject, both long time storage of digital data, hardware lifetime and backward compatibility of the hardware and software. Many of my most important stuff are stored in digital format on external hdd drives now. I have been using computers of my own since 1995 and the quantity of stored important data has been adding up slowly. I find that a computer is a very effective way of storing, modifying and accessing data. Text, image, video, sketches, etc are easy to use and store. A whole library of documents and albums in such a portable and small device. I have seen that digital storage is always a questioned method, I believe it was a scandinavian institute that used to test the long time storage of digital data. I still have a lot of spectrum tapes and 5’25” floppy disks that may be demagnetized in a number of years… also, an external hdd can always fail, right now I am trying to have my data in two different storage devices. Data can always be copied and transferred, what I think is a problem is backward compatibility. I have a desktop with XP that is not used now, and it was able to run everything from the DOS, Win 3.11, 95, 98 era with DosBox and a virtual machine. And I have the spectrum computer. But right now I use a laptop and it runs Win7, tried to install XP but there are no drivers available for XP anymore, so the software upgrade is kind of foced on the user by the software and hardware companies, and they are not bothered by hardware and software backwards compatibility… this is what I see as the major problem. When you put out a new operating system, it should be able to effectively run older software for the previous version, through an integrated emulated environment or whatever. One more thing, I think that even if data is so convenient to store and use in digital format today, and even if the physical format for magazines and newspapers is dying in he digital age, physical books and paintings will not die so easily, even with Kindle. 🙂 Thank you for the articles, keep it up!

  3. I’m a huge fan of Vivian Maier and the whole story behind. I think, the risk of storing photos is not only about digital storage. Storing negatives in boxes in a cellar can also cause problems like humidity and mildew or a fire etc. So I think the best way to store photos is so save it in several places, for example in an external hard drive and space in the cloud. Once I read an article from a photographer who designs and prints a photobook every year with all his nicest shots from family, day by day, vacations. I think, that this could also be a nice alternative.
    Cheers, Sarah

  4. Maybe the solution is to diversify: make books, get images online in a safe place, burn CDs and DVDs in multiple formats and spread it all around with your name and copyright on it.

  5. > Will the computer of 2064 still recognize raw or jpg formats?

    There are popular open-source decoders for JPG in basically every programming language that exists, so it’s hard to imagine any plausible scenario that results in losing all of them.

    If there’s an arc to our ability to preserve digital files and formats, it’s appears to be an arc trending towards increased preservation rather than decreased. Try to think of a file format used by more than a million people that we’ve lost the ability to read in the last ten years — I can’t think of any.

    I agree that RAW’s more interesting to think about, though. You could imagine a combination of DSLRs becoming quickly obsolete, and new programming language paradigms taking over, that would lead to forgetting some of the RAW formats we can currently interpret.

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  7. I like examining under the magnifying glass ancient photographs. (1840’s). Etc. You may spot some interesting detail. However , in the matter of the digital photo, I get nothing as nice and clear as with pre-digital photography. Gentle people, what say. Ron Montero.

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