Recording the past in a digital age

A recent trip to the library was fruitful and I came away with a lovely hardback book called Rural Britain: Then and Now, which is a collection of black and white images from the famous Francis Frith collection.

For those who are not familiar with the grandfather of British photography – Francis Frith was a man of great entrepreneurial spirit and a bit of a photographic trailblazer. Like all great figures from history, his is a story of simple beginnings. Born to Quaker parents in 1822, in Chesterfield, Francis Frith owned a successful wholesale grocery business, which allowed him to set up his own photographic publishing company. Between 1856 and 1860 he undertook three pioneering, and often dangerous, photographic expeditions to the Middle East, taking his bulky Victorian equipment with him on boat, donkey, camel and mules. Such an epic feat established Francis Frith’s reputation and marked the beginning of the work for which he ultimately became famous – a photographic record of as many towns, cities and villages as he and his team of photographers could manage. His unromanticised and stark portrayal of British life has become an invaluable social history record of life as it was.

Petworth Children 1908, copyright Francis Frith Collection

Of course, we now look back at these images with more than a hint of nostalgic longing for a time of rustic simplicity; a time when neighbours actually talked to each other, children played outside, and traffic jams were non-existent – bliss! The reality, I’m sure, was very different.

But it did get me thinking about what records we, of the digital age, will be leaving behind for future generations. This is particularly pertinent in terms of private family collections. My mother recently rediscovered some ancient family slides from the 1970s and having gone to great lengths to find a working slide projector (not easy these days!) she was able to treat us all to a slide show. Her house is a treasure trove of images from the past, with cupboards full to bursting of photo albums and framed family portraits on every surface, but then she is an avid photographer. What a wonderful tangible record of our family existence to be able to pass on – a collection covering some 70 years.

How will our existence be defined? Photography for social purposes has become a ‘throwaway’ concept. It is now so easy to take a snap of something – everything – that nothing is really sacred or precious anymore. It has become too easy, and as a result photographs are not cherished in the same way that they once were. In fact, the opposite is true in the case of social media, where everything is overshared and available to look at whether we want to look at it or not.

Once upon a time, getting photographs to the point where you could actually display them was a long and painstaking process. Even in my lifetime, getting a film developed meant taking it to a shop, waiting for several weeks and then going back to pick it up, not to mention the expense. Often photos that would now be discarded on a smart phone would be kept, just because you had had the expense and hassle of getting them developed!

The crux here is tangibility – the authenticity of something solid that you can hold in your hand. The photograph derives its worth from its physicality. The nebulous concept of ‘The Cloud’, where many photographs now end up, to some extent, denigrates their worth. As does social media. I am no pariah, and use social media prolifically myself. But I can’t help thinking that in an age where we have the ability to record so easily our daily lives in a way our forebears could only ever dream of, we are actually hurtling towards a time when much of these vast collections of every day family life will be lost because no one considers them important enough to keep.

The joy of discovering some lost family photographs in the attic will eventually be replaced by the disappointment of realising that in order to view a relative’s family photo archive you need their Cloud log-in, smart phone or tablet. Or, you might stumble across a USB stick, and then, like my mother with her 1970s slides, you’ll spend weeks trying to get the right equipment together so that you can view the images on there.

Hopefully that’s a way off yet though….

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