Aviation Photographers, Are You a Hoarder or Archivist?

By Scott Spangler on January 25th, 2021

USAF Museum Bldg 4Photography is an activity pursued by many interested in aviation. For photographers who started before the digital age, storing slides, negatives, and prints was not only an out of space problem but also spacious signal that might suggest a hoarding problem to the uninitiated. Digital image storage in the cloud or on a hard drive is virtually unseen and more circumspect.

The answer to the headline’s question depends on how easily photographers can find a specific photo. No matter how the images are stored, if a filing system will produce a desired photo in a short amount of time, you have an archive. If you don’t even look for the photo because you don’t have (or can’t make) the time to wander through mountains of shoe boxes or three-ring binders, or terabytes of digital images, you’re a hoarder.

Archiving takes time, but don’t avoid it with the rationalization that there is little chance of you finding a future use for the image, so why bother. The answer is simple—because you never know when an unconsidered but valuable use of the photo may reveal itself. If you doubt that, consider this recent story in the New York Times, “It Spied on Soviet Atomic Bombs. Now It’s Solving Ecological Mysteries.”

05SCI-CORONA-SATELLITE-promo-threeByTwoSmallAt2XTo summarize, declassified Corona spy satellite photos are providing the terrain information that is help helping scientists measure the death march of our changing climate. Or in the words of a scientists quoted in the article, “It’s Google Earth in black and white.” Unlike today’s eyes in the sky, Corona satellites, created in 1958 and first launched in 1960, and its immediate successors, all used 20-pound rolls of film. The satellite sent its film to the processor in a small reentry pod that the Air Force snatched in midair as it parachuted toward the ocean.

Even more remarkable is that the government kept the more than 850,000 images after they had served their intelligence purposes. And it retained them still after declassifying them in the 1990s. (If you’re interested in the rest of this story, see this Times story, “Inside the CIA, She Became a Spy for Planet Earth.”)

Or maybe it was not so remarkable. Of the 145 Corona film drops, 120 were successful. That’s a lot of 20-pound rolls of film. Like many photographers, maybe the government retained the images because it took less time, money, and effort to leave them in storage than it did to deal with them.

050421-F-1234P-002It could be worse. The image that opens this story is the Boston Camera, on display at the National Museum of the US Air Force. Otherwise known as the K-42, it is the largest aerial camera ever built. Designed and built by Boston University (hence its name) in 1951, it weighed about 3 tons and was carried by the ERB-36D, a recon B-36 Peacemaker, and later a C-97 Stratofreighter. With a fixed focal length lens of 240 inches with an aperture of f8, it created 18-by-36-inch images on its roll of film with a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second. With a maximum resolution of 28 lines per millimeter, it could see a golf ball from 45,000 feet.

The space needed to archive these negatives is not what boggles my mind. As a photographer who spent a good deal of time developing film in an old school wet darkroom, I can’t imagine what it would be like to dip and dunk a robust roll of film that is a series of 18-by-36-inch images. But having invested the time to archive my image of the camera after my visit to the Air Force Museum, I retrieved it for this story in less than a minute.

If you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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