Is it possible to capture the fragility and tactile/visual history of old photos in a digital environment. What would happen if every time someone viewed an image online they damaged it a little and left some trace on the actual image. Eventually the image will be destroyed or damaged beyond recognition – would this change the way we view, value and share images online in any way?

The History

photos of my grand father given to me by my father

During the recent Museum Next conference in Barcelona I attended a presentation by Lev Bratishenko on his 404 Error exhibition (  that explored the links between physical and digital objects and actions. It reminded me of an idea I had ages ago for a site where images uploaded to it would actucally be damaged and eventually destroyed by the act of viewing them. I expected this to have been done ages ago by someone far more able than myself. However, when i asked about it I was pleasantly surprised when the idea created some enthusiasm among the good folk attending Museum Next.

With this in mind and a few tweet conversations later I thought it would be useful to capture my thoughts on this and hopefully start making it a reality in some way or uncovering something good already there.


Trees in reforestation project
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C

In his talk at Museum Next Jason Daponte talked about the internet of things and how now anytihng can have a digital history by collecting data and sharing it online. This is great but it often seems the things ON the internet have no history. You can collect data about what happens to a thing on the web – how many times it’s viewed, where it goes etc but this has no effect on the thing itself – on the web  the history and the thing are separate.

In the physical world the history of a thing is part of it – the patina on furniture, the creases in a book or the fading of a photograph. Just by looking at the thing you can get a sense of the story without having to know in a separate place how many likes or shares it has had.

photo booth photo I found on the street

I’m a big believer in the adage that your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. This is true for digital images. It’s great that my photos will never be lost , damaged or destroyed as i get older but their immortality makes them frozen – like less evil vampires! In the photo above I can immediately get a sense of how old the tree is but I dont know if the photo was taken yesterday or 100 years ago.

It’s great I can share any photo with millions of people any time but sharing half of a photo booth print strip with a girlfriend as a teenager felt special and unique to us – how do today’s teens get that same sense of value?

And besides people just like old stuff – that’s clear from the rash of instagram/hipstamatic filters and deluge of vintage wear.

The Evil why…

Destroying an image after X number of views could also be a nifty way to ensure image licences are honoured and open up a whole new costing module for licences – I’m not really advocating this but it could be a money spinner for DRM. Could this also be a way to allow more photos to be taken in museums?

What should it do?

When thinking about what this digital photo ageing machine should do a few questions come up for me.

Faded or degrade

How should the image be affected by views?  Should it fade out as if into the ether or collapse pixel by pixel? would creases and fingerprint effects make it more realistic and emotive? but would this be less truthful to the viewer – trying to mimic physical interaction rather than create a new digital decay.

Virtual or real death

Should the original image file be degraded or just the visual representation online? If the file is immortal it can regenerate any time like a character in a computer game – is this more truthful to its digital nature or does it take away any value created by the perceived delicacy of the image. Personally I think the original file should be destroyed and if it is copied it includes any decay caused online. It would probably require some Anonymous level hacking and invasion of privacy to do this but it would really make you think twice about sharing something if it was possible. I know from our work with Mozilla Open Badges that you can ‘bake’ JSON meta data into a PNG file – could this be used to put the meta-decay into the file?

How fragile

Should the image be damaged by viewing or by sharing or both. Personally I think it should be viewing –  but is it affected by how long you view it? If I left an image on screen overnight would it burn outlike old cine film or gather dust like the virtual Bees Nate Solas showed on the Walker Arts Centre site at Museum Next?

What next?

First I’d really like to know what others think and any examples of this already being done or in use. Second would be to answer some of the questions above, make something that does it and finally see what people thought of it – would people use it in evil ways to destroy photos of ex-lovers or bad politicians? would fragile digital images become the new currency in a post Euro world? 🙂

Please add a comment, write your own post, tweet me @cliffmanning or tweet something about this and anything you can do to help or examples already there.

The hashtag #photogone may be good for this

“They’re already here!”

James Morley  has been massively awesome already and has gone and made an automtaic image fader on flickr

This is great and shows how it could work and also how quick something can be done by some one more able than myself! Big hats off

Terrance Eden and Anne van Gerwen have also offered to help make something and test it with users – we just need to make some time to speak more and see what is possible/practical amongst the day jobs.

Hope this is of some interest and a thanks to all the Museum Next folk for the inspiration and friendlyness – look forward to 2013 and all the photos!

Notes on the author

I dont have a PhD in Museum-ness

I consider myself very much the enthusiastic amateur when it comes to museums. I work with museums and I am familiar with many of the challenges with engaging and supporting an audience – particularly in education sector but I don’t have any academic grounding or expertise on curating, collections etc. But I do collect stuff and I go to lots of museums and gallery gift shops.

I can re-wire a plug not a house

I have done web design before it got complicated with databases. I know how things work and can tinker with things. But I am not a programmer and I shouldnt be left to look after the internet for the weekend or anything.

Please bear these in mind if inclined to shout at me or mock. Thanks 🙂