When there was only “film” photography, as it is nowadays called, it was normal to have every good negative printed. Only the negatives that were no good, i.e. blurred, out of focus, completely black or transparent were not included with the prints that most people got from the photo shop. So almost every person, and certainly every family had their albums with annotated or anonymous pictures. Many had shoeboxes full of unsorted photographs. And there were the professional archives with still more. Many millions of tiny documents, mostly with the only intention of keeping memories alive of family and relatives, children, women and men in their daily surroundings, but mostly on holidays. But in this unimaginably big mass of images lies the collective memory of a people, of peoples, towns, countries, in fact the whole world.
Even when most of this material will never be seen by others, and in fact simply disappears from the face of the earth together with the people it depicts, there is a growing interest for the preservation of at least a selection of the photographic material that is available from various sources. These sources should cover both low culture and high culture for a broader insight. Cultural historians and sociologists (present and future) will be grateful for this. In many parts of the world institutions, museums, libraries and archives are active in the field of collecting and preserving our photographic heritage and a lot of good work in studying and analyzing has already been done.
With digital photography almost completely taking over amateur photography and large sections of professional and let’s say “art” photography, the print is not so self-evident anymore. Few people keep albums with prints; and the image, with all its historical/sociological/whatever importance, only exists in its virtual form. And when photo albums may survive, and may even go all the way from the fleamarket to the museum or archive, and thus be saved, the virtual image stored away on disks or in other ways practically invisible and inaccessible to others will disappear with its owner. This age might be a lot less well-documented photographically than the previous one in spite of the fact that everybody seems to be taking photographs. But where are the photographs?