Digital Photo Management: Sharing Pictures Today is Just So Easy

Fidel Castro in the 1980s. Photo by Charles Tasnadi

Fidel Castro in the 1980s.

Sharing Pictures Today is Just So Easy. Here’s some perspective…

I have fairly recently submerged myself in social media – Facebook, Twitter, reading lots of blogs, etc., and I can’t help but think, every time I click on a photo link, about how much easier it is today to send or share photographs with people than it was 20 years ago before the public Internet and before digital data transmissions. I do not feel I am very old, but I guess I have seen some pretty big changes.

During the years I worked as a photo editor with the Associated Press in Washington, DC, I had the privilege to make several trips to Cuba with staff photographer Charles Tasnadi, one of the finest human beings in the business. Charles had known Fidel Castro as a revolutionary, and was one of very few US-based journalists allowed close access to him. Traveling in the 80’s to Cuba required chartering a small plane from Miami to Havana, loading up about 7 cases of equipment containing photographic film and paper and the chemicals to process them, cameras, lenses, dryers, tanks, enlargers, trays, black plastic sheets, lots of duct tape, typewriter, a photo transmitter and lots of other miscellaneous stuff. After all, there were no spares available in Cuba!

The logistics about getting into Cuba is a whole other story: I will only mention that when we arrived at the Havana airport we were greeted by a soldier who watched the pilot open the door and spray bug repellant around the door opening. We were not allowed to exit the airplane until the Yankee bugs that hitched a ride were killed, presumably for fear of contaminating the purity of the Communist society!

Back to sharing pictures. After checking into the hotel room, the first thing we did was make the bathroom light tight so that we could process film and make prints, which we did by securing black plastic sheeting across the door with duct tape. We are not talking about a large bathroom suite: the enlarger usually had to balance on the toilet seat. Next the local phone company would come to the room and install a phone line that was supposed to allow us to have a clear line to transmit photos. You would pick up the phone and crank it and get the operator (I kid you not!).

Once film was hand processed in the tanks and dried, you had to use a loupe (magnifier) to look at the negatives and find the best images. A print was made, usually black and white first, and then a color version (remember this was done while on your knees in front of the toilet bowl). You typed out a caption on sticky backed paper and attached it to the print, then you wrapped the print around a rotating drum in the image transmitter, and then the fun began. You would crank the phone, get the operator and have her dial a number and beg her not to interrupt the line (more about this later). Someone in the New York AP office answered the phone and you explained you were in a hotel room in Cuba and you needed to send the photo right away.

If you were lucky back then a black-and-white photo was transmitted as an analog signal in 15 minutes, about 45 minutes for a color photo (these things take just seconds now in the digital world). But more often than not either the phone line would drop out at some point, or the operator would wonder why you were talking to the US for so long and would eavesdrop on the line to hear the conversation. In the analog transmission world of the 1980’s you could not share data and voice: voice won and you would get nice lines of noise across the photo. So many times we would have to start the transmission all over, and I would spend hours trying to get out a single photo. The glamorous life of a globe-trotting photo editor! The good news was, once the photo was finally received in New York it would be relayed to essentially every newspaper around the world, and photos of Castro being so rare, it would likely be on the front page. That part felt good!

Now fast forward to 2009 and people and organizations share photos in a matter of seconds to any one around the world that has Internet. News photographers these days can preview the image and send it via Wi-Fi directly from the camera! Back then a photo agency would send at most 2-300 photos a day: nowadays they can send upwards of 6,000 new images on a busy news day, and our Merlin digital asset management customers typically store millions of digital photos from places all over the world.

I am sure most people have no idea how difficult it was 20 years ago to share just a single photo. Oh and in case you were wondering, duct tape does remove paint around bathroom doors, and photo chemistry can destroy waxed floors (we were always paying for repairs to the hotel rooms!).

The author playing dominos with the phone installers. Photo by Charles Tasnadi

The author playing dominos with the phone installers.

Posted by Rande Simpson
Photos by Charles Tasnadi

Leave a Reply