Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Archive for February 2011

New Work

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Nigerian caregiver arranging malaria bednets at dawn. Caregivers provide local children with bednets, water filters and protein cereals.

I finally had the chance to update my website with work from recent projects.  I spent several months working in Africa last year for a non-profit, documenting issues faced by at-risk children and showing life in what is now the independent country of Southern Sudan.  You can see more of this work in the new “Non-Profit” section of my website along with new editorial and commercial work.

Written by kasmauski

February 26, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Getty Grant Video

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Back in May, I put up a link with some of my work from the first “Grant for Good.”   This innovative project was sponsored by Getty Images.  The grant was a wonderful gift that provided support for me to document the work of a non-profit organization called SOCM that I’ve long admired.  Since then, I’ve been editing a video called “The Story of SOCM”  that combines stills, audio, video and historic pictures to tell the 40 year history of this amazing organization.  You can see the finished production here on YouTube, and on my website.  You can also read more about working on this grant project in one of my recent columns for Nikon World.

Written by kasmauski

February 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm

Is Anything as Permanent as the Pyramids?

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The pyramids have endured for 5000 years. How long will records of our civilization remain?

As events unfolded in Egypt I watched with great interest.  Seeing civil resistance transforming a government that has ruled with an iron fist for over 30 years is exciting.  But Egypt represents something else to me—the idea of permanence.

I loved being in Egypt.  Standing in front of the massive 5000 years old pyramids was exhilarating.  These stones stood sentinel as hundreds of generations were born, grew up and died.  Upriver on the Nile we visited the Valley of the Kings. The tombs there date back to 16th century B.C.  Though they were over 3700 years old, many of the writings and colors in the tombs remain vivid and readable today (if I could read hieroglyphics.)

The permanence of Egypt’s ancient objects started me thinking about how we preserve information today.  As a photographer, I’m concerned about permanence, particularly in our digital world where images seem so ephemeral.  Would the thousands of pictures I’ve created over my lifetime survive, even to the next generation?  Would my children, when they become adults, make any effort to preserve my work— especially those in digital form?  Would they try to migrate my life’s work to whatever medium will be used 30 or 40 years from now?  And when they’re gone, and their children are gone, will that be it?  Could my images survive a full century, let alone 37 centuries?

I have a girlfriend, Stacy, who is a brilliant writer.  Tragically, her husband had brain cancer and passed away early last year.  Just before he went in for his initial surgery he was still looking good and vital.  I took two frames of Stacy with him in the hospital room.  They were last pictures showing him as a healthy person, before he started his plunge into depths from which he could never return.

After he was gone Stacy wrote an article for her newspaper about this horrible period in her life and the biological meaning of death.  Her editor wanted an image of her and her husband together during his illness.  Stacy remembered that I had sent jpegs of the two images to her at work.  But in the chaos of her husband’s illness she had forgotten to save the images.  Her company periodically eliminates older emails, so when she looked for them, the pictures were lost, wiped out with the click of a button.  Luckily, as a professional photographer, I keep almost all my images.  Stacy emailed me the date of the surgery and I found the missing pictures.  She wanted them not only for her editor, but also as a reminder of her vital husband.  In his drugged state he was smiling, almost happy, not really focused on what was about to happen. I was glad—it made for a warm and poignant moment.

The photographs helped my friend preserve a memory of her husband.  But like memories, photographs—even digital ones—can fade.

Hard drives keep all of our records today. In 10 or 20 years, no one will know how to access devices like these. Can our records have anything like the permanence of the Egypt’s pyramids?

I feel like I’m constantly fighting against that fading, constantly pursuing permanence.  My computer links to an array of hard drives holding most of my professional and personal images.  Those drives have backups, and the backups have backups.  Some days, it seems like all I do is tend to this technology, in a never-ending ritual of back up trying to secure some sense of permanence.  I’m a worrier, so my nightmare vision is that some disaster like a major solar flare will wipe out my hard drives and all my life’s work.  So I make DVD back ups of all my assignments AND my family images, which frankly are more important to me than my assignments.

In our digital world where everything is impermanent, I spend much of my time trying to create and preserve a permanent record of my work.

During most of her life Vivian Major was a nannie for wealthy New York City families.  On her days off, she photographed life in the city, using a 2 ¼ camera.  She died an unknown, her negatives neatly filed in boxes.  After her death, she was “discovered.”  A young man researching a history book on Chicago bought 30,000 prints and negatives from an auction house that acquired the photographs from the storage locker that had sold off Majer’s goods. http://vivianmaier.blogspot.com/

This woman had boxes of negatives holding images that were extraordinarily fresh in their observational power.  Of course they could easily have been tossed out.  After all, who has the patience to go through 30,000 negatives?  Vivian Majer’s life work might have gone into the trash and she would have been just another photographer passing gently into that good night.

Since her “discovery” this woman who died alone without family or friends has become famous.  Through digital marketing her images have attracted a following.  She has thousands of admirers (including myself) who love the honesty and vision of her work.

So here’s the question:  If her work was on a hard drive rather than in boxes, would Vivian Majer have been discovered?  Would the buyer of that hard drive take the time and pay whatever costs were required to find out what it held?  Or would the buyer simply erase it, and store other information on the device?

I think of the Egyptians and the amazing staying power of the cultural monuments they built 5000 years ago.  In our time, we’ve moved from the permanence of stone or paper records to having nearly all information stored as fragile bits of magnetic data.  Of course the digital records from this era will need regular updating and transfer to new storage systems as hardware and software become obsolete.  With all these concerns, I doubt that many folks in the far future will accidently find a treasure of prize images at a country flea market, left behind by an unknown talent like photographer Vivian Major

Unless we’re rich enough to pay for a company continually migrating our image files to future storage systems, within a generation or two, most of us will have our work trapped on archaic devices that no one will know how to access.  There are many wonderful things about the digital world.  Yet as it becomes the only home for more and more of our culture, I have to wonder if the humans 5000 years from now will know more about the Egyptians, with their stories saved in stone, than about us.

Written by kasmauski

February 25, 2011 at 2:07 pm