This image by William Fox Talbot, showing Nelson’s Column under construction in 1844, brings history to life in 2015. It features in Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860, which runs at Tate Britain in London until 7 June [Photo credit: © Wilson Centre for Photography]


That’s the stark warning from the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) and Photo Marketing Association after Google vice-president Vint Cerf recently warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data stored on computers will be lost for ever.

Speaking at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California, Cerf said last month: ‘When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that’s captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all the World Wide Web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history.’

Turn the clock back 175 years when the emerging photographic trend of the day was more salt-print than selfie. Photography pioneer Fox Talbot was busy churning out prints from the earliest form of paper photography.

Yet, Fox Talbot’s work lives on today, bringing history to life in an exhibition at Tate Britain that documents daily activities and key moments of the mid-19th century, such as the building of Nelson’s Column.

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Newhaven Fishermen, c. 1845 by David Hill and Robert Adamson. A salted paper print from a paper negative, from Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860, now on at Tate Britain  [Photo credit: © Wilson Centre for Photography]

These days, zillions of photos languish unsorted on computer hard drives and mobile phones in danger of being lost for ever if not properly archived.

Such concerns have been collectively voiced by the photographic industry for years. But the message carries extra resonance now that a Google big gun has fired a warning shot across the digital bows.

‘Cerf highlights a real concern for historians,’ observes RPS director general Michael Pritchard.

‘We are still looking at Talbot calotypes from the 1840s and I suspect we will still be able to enjoy these and today’s photographs, if they have been properly printed, in another 200 years.

‘I would be much less confident about anyone being able to view most amateur digital files, created today, in 200 years.

‘How we archive, preserve and make available digital images (and other digital files) for the future is a real concern for organisations such as the British Library and the National Archives and should be a matter of concern for all digital photographers.’

Pritchard points to three areas that pose a threat: the durability of today’s storage media – ‘Will media survive in their environment?’ he asks; secondly, the accessibility of storage media – ‘Will they still work when played?’; and thirdly, Pritchard questions whether machines of the future will be able to play back digital files, rendering them obsolete.

‘The best estimates suggest that magnetic media [such as computer hard drives] have a lifespan of 10-20 years and CDs/DVDs around 10-25 years, and USB flash drives perhaps 10,000 plus read/write cycles,’ he asserts.


The typical lifespan of an SD card is ’10 years or more’ with current technology and normal usage, according to the SD Association

Pritchard’s view is one echoed by Georgia McCabe, CEO of the Photo Marketing Association, a trade body based in the United States. McCabe recently warned that ‘the most photographed generation will have no pictures in 10 years’, and called on the photo industry to ‘figure out’ a way to convince the public that their photos must be properly stored.

Though she does not go so far as advocating ‘everyone print everything’, she says mobile phones are particularly vulnerable, especially where the user has changed phone or accidentally damaged it without saving their images elsewhere.

And what happens if ‘your hard drive goes kaput?’ she asked rhetorically during an interview published on the PMA website last month.