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Why do we preserve things? Anything? There’s the economic imperative against being wasteful of course, so that make sense. But apart from that, why not just keep making new? And what is it about certain things that almost compels us to keep them? Not just keep them, but keep them safe. Because preservation involves protection, protection against destruction, of course, but more than that, protection against any of the works of time. Protection, in short, against change.
So, why do we need things to stay the same? I think, no matter how important and truly moving our memories are, this is about more than memories — I think it’s about understanding. When we experience something we’ve preserved, whether by looking at it, listening to it, walking around inside it, or just holding it in our hands, we’re going back to learn from it anew, and to learn in perhaps a new way. We compare then with now, our selves and our world then and now. Is this thing different in some fundamental way, or does it just seem so at the speeding surface of our lives? Was what we see now, as though for the first time, there all along and we missed it? Or are we different, asking different questions now, seeing things for the first time, though they’ve been there all along? Has it changed, or have we? As we see something old with new eyes, we are rewarded with new insights. Though it may surprise us to find lessons where we only looked for memories we should be glad that we have the sense to protect, to save those things that teach us still.
Jon is Vintage Aerial’s Vice-President for Archives and Projects.
Last month, my colleague and Director of Engineering, Kevin Marsh, wrote a post giving a broad overview of how Vintage Aerial uses technology to preserve history. As Director of Archive Development, I have the privilege of working with the ornate, historic film in our vault and the ground-breaking software that Kevin has developed. While I could go on and on about the details of this work, this post will focus primarily on the G.I.S. (Geographical Information Systems) aspect of my job.
Years ago when a pilot would go up to take photos, he would bring a simple county map with him. While flying and taking photos, he would also trace his flight path on these maps and mark the spot each time he changed a roll of film. Let me remind you, he did this all while flying!
Technology and History are almost contradictory. Often we hear news stories of a new technology coming along and eradicating the past. We certainly recognize the theme in the story of our photographic collection. Modern “progress” in the form of shopping malls, corporate farms, and urban sprawl are encroaching on rural America as many of us remember it. But the beauty of Vintage Aerial’s product and service is that today’s advanced digital imaging, GIS, and web technology are combining to preserve the past.
At the heart of our collection are the photographs. But the photos shot from the 1960s to even the late 1990s were shot on (black and white) film, and live in a protected vault of film canisters. We’re scanning and digitizing some 700,000 rolls of this film. Each image is stored as a lossless-compressed TIFF file that is around 6 megabytes. When we’re finished scanning, the the total collection will take up about 150 terabytes.
In the analog world of 50 years ago the Aerial Photography business had a simple goal, to capture a photographic memoir of a family farm to preserve it for the benefit of future generations. Simply put, to create an heirloom. This was a cottage industry, made up of Mom and Pop companies which would send airplanes into a county to photograph homes and farms without any advance assurance that anyone would want to see or buy them. A salesperson would go door-to-door showing the owners their pictures from aloft.
I have been in and around this industry for over 33 years. My family happens to have been the largest in the country starting in 1962. I quickly became one of the sales guys who saw the importance of preserving family history in this way and so I took to the road. The challenges were many; sometimes people were not home, or didn’t feel the product to be necessary or see the immediate or long-term value of it at all. However, many people wisely did invest in their personal histories and still highly value these photos decades later.