Chaos and Uncertainty for Railroad Photography: Why Digital Images May Not Survive as Long as Silver Halide

Clark E. Johnson and Richard Jay Solomon

This talk will discuss the manifold and disturbing reasons for why the more we progress electronically, the less assurance we have that our pictures will be as archival as the negatives and prints of yesteryear. Most significantly is that there is no known medium assuring long-term storage for digital encoding. The best is magnetics (magnetism can, done properly, last millions of years), but substrates that hold magnetically polarized bits are often less than ideal for long-term storage. (We dismiss photo-sensitive media such a CDs and DVDs as completely useless.)

Other topics will include digital encoding itself, where standards change faster than diesel engine models. Accurate color preservation has rarely been adequately addressed for digital, where proprietary RAW formats pose challenges. We will also address the problems of archiving prints: silver halide, chromographic, and so-called archival inks, and the papers themselves.

Finally, we will make some recommendations of how best to preserve large and small railroad collections, offering some redundancy in methods acknowledging that few techniques will survive long-term, but some may.

About the Presenters

Clark E. Johnson is a physicist specializing in magnetics especially as it relates to data storage. He spent nine years in the Central Research Laboratory of 3M Company and subsequently as entrepreneur founding several companies, one of which, Vertimag Systems, played a significant role in the development of perpendicular magnetic recording technology, now used in virtually all disk drives.

Johnson is currently a Director of Iowa Pacific Holdings, LLC, a short-line railroad holding company and president of its High Iron subsidiary. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), former president of the Magnetics Society and holder of over 30 U.S. and foreign patents. He was a science advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988-89. He holds B.S. and M.S.E.E. degrees in physics from the University of Minnesot, and resides in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife Nona (a director of the Center) when not riding the rails.

Richard Jay Solomon is currently adjunct faculty at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. For the past decade he has been studying electronic imaging and the human perceptual system, sponsored by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Naval Research Lab and the National Security Agency. He was associate director of the MIT research program on Communications Policy in the 1990s, having joined MIT in 1969 as a transportation researcher. With Clark Johnson and others, he was instrumental in the creation of the MIT/Polaroid/Philips 720P HDTV camera for NASA and DARPA. From 1976-1980 he was a Fellow at Harvard University in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Solomon holds 10 patents and several patents pending in electronic imaging, spectroscopy and telecommunications. He began photographing railroads in the mid-1950s, and his photos appear in numerous railroad books by his son, Brian Solomon. Before taking up computers, he was managing editor of a professional photography magazine in the early 1960s.