What's In Your Mexican Suitcase?

From Robert Capa to Ray Charles, a personal search for a lost negative

Take a look at the Times photograph of the suitcase itself and you can't help but smile at the fastidiousness of it all, each roll of negatives in its little partition, the microscopic handwritten details on the inside cover. It's quite a thing of beauty, something any of us would scoop up at a yard sale in an instant without ever caring what was inside. We're drawn to this case because it represents everything we've now lost in a digital age--the three-dimensionality, the yellowed, stained cardboard, and even, one can assume, the smell. (Can you just imagine the mustiness of it all?) The general who kept the Mexican suitcase, as well as his descendants who safeguarded it in the years since, knew it had value without ever needing to unroll a single negative strip. It exudes both gravitas and elegance before it ever hits you with its actual historical importance.

Two weeks ago I was in Paris and, with my wife, a tea fanatic, we made our annual pilgrimage to Mariage Frères, a Mecca for tea connoisseurs. As I watched the men dressed in snappy suits scoop tea from row upon row of ancient tins, as if I was caught in a time warp, I couldn't help be mesmerized. One doesn't drink the tin, of course, but it seemed to me then that the experience just wouldn't be the same without it.

This is not the position of a Luddite, mind you. I fully enjoy shooting digitally and appreciate the ability to delve into a subject's eye in Photoshop. But like the tea experience at Mariage Frères, I am reminded me that there is value in the container. I do miss my grease-penciled contact sheets, my caption envelopes, my light table. And most of all, I miss my negatives, not because those images cannot be replicated in a digital age-they can-- but because there is a beauty in the tactile sensation of holding a negative up to light that can never be duplicated by looking at thousand neatly stacked and numbered files on a laptop.

All of this got me instantly thinking (and worrying): What kind of Mexican suitcase will we leave to our future generations to find? A SyQuest cartridge from the early 1990's? A floppy disk? A Zip drive? I've always laughed at the prospect of one of the great ironies of the digital era: In the end, only paper will survive. Our grandchildren might venture into an attic sixty years from now and find a stack of gorgeous prints--made from digital cameras and film cameras alike--and then again, they might find the original files to those prints on a CD with faded Sharpie writing. The prints, of course, will be treasured while the CD will get thrown into the trash faster than one can say, "what's a SCSI drive?"

(To be fair, there are plenty of atrocities on both sides of the fence. Back in the late eighties, someone at a major Washington newspaper, looking to clear some space, threw away negatives from a 16 year period, including many of those belonging to a minor political dust-up called Watergate.)

Last year, I was in the middle of a fun IM exchange with my friend and former USA TODAY colleague, Alex Korab. I was talking about some photos I had sent her of my daughter and Alex was talking about some photos of her father, legendary architectural photographer Balthazar Korab. In one of those moments that might lead a ten-year-old to shout, "jinx," we both typed the following IM at the exact same instant.

Photomat: I have to make prints 'cause God knows these digital files won't survive twenty years.
Photokorab: I keep meaning to send those off to be digitized before the color entirely disappears.

That we would reach the opposite conclusion at the exact same moment gave us both a good laugh.

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