In some ways, an image that you put in a computer or on the internet could last longer than an image that you have in your hand as a print, or a drawing, etc. You might lose the physical image, it might get lost, you might lend it out and never get it back, but not the one on your computer or on a server somewhere else that you can access online. They seem like they could just be there forever. No longer any need to swap your photographic negatives with your friends’, in case one of your houses burns down1, if you have all of your pictures on a hard drive and backed up to the cloud. No need to worry about lending out the precious family photo album to a niece or nephew if you can just send them a Dropbox link.

But is this really true? When your computer gets old and breaks, you will probably throw it away or put it somewhere at the very top or bottom of the house and forget about it. You might not be able to get to all the files saved in there, and those could be all your pictures. In theory there are ways of getting old files, but we usually don’t bother. There’s a threshold of what is worth saving.

If you put all your pictures onto CDs ten years ago, you might now be unable to look at them because your new laptop does not have a CD drive. Are you going to take the CDs somewhere to extract the pictures, and put them on a different type of storage device that you can look at, and keep doing that every time your storage device goes obsolete? It’s worth remembering that drawings, paintings, and photographic prints don’t burden us with these problems.

This is what made me think that perhaps making a physical picture could be a more long-lasting way of keeping an image, after all. And I have thought about what kinds of physical images really last a long time. Of course I decided that paintings were a pretty good bet. We still have cave paintings going back at least 60,000 years, and we lovingly preserve frescoes and panel paintings from hundreds of years ago. I’m not saying that I think any images I make would necessarily last that long. But if you could select the right image and create it in a good enough way, perhaps it could last that bit longer as a real thing in the real world - and more importantly, perhaps, be seen that bit more - than it would as a digital image. Paulina Olowska comes to mind: her paintings commemorate what might otherwise be lost to time, failed utopia aesthetics and the Polish culture of her childhood, deliberately enshrined in painting so as to stake themselves a claim as part of cultural history. Or Caroline Walker, whose paintings of women working in London’s nail salons ensure that their lives and labour are remembered, given an importance that a photograph might not be able to confer2.

The endurance of paintings is summed up well, perhaps, by TJ Clark in ‘The Sight of Death’. He is talking about ‘Landscape with a Snake’ by Poussin: ‘Imagine the smoke billowing from his lordship’s fireplace on winter evenings, and Time puffing on the ashes of the red-brown ground. Feel the pressure of the restorer’s paste-iron. Imagine the Right Honorable So-and-So spitting playfully into the shallows at the running man’s feet. Paintings are defenceless, paintings are survivors.’3
1. This used to be common practice, according to my relatives.

2. These are also both examples of women taking an aspect of painting that has traditionally excluded women - the elevation and commemoration of important men - and appropriating its power to give gravity to female culture, labour and history.

3. T.J. Clark, The Sight of Death, (London: Yale University Press, 2006) p242.