Like many of my peers, I started snapping pictures with film in a camera. All of us who started this way have stories of falling in love with photography as we watched the image develop in a tray of developer under the glow of a red safe-light. We have a romantic connection with these celluloid frames and we promised ourselves we would treasure every last frame until the end.
Well, what happens when the end comes? Many of us not only have film in the form of slides or negatives – some in multiple formats –processed under a variety of conditions. (Oh the articles I have read about archival processing.) The fiber and RC prints..the color prints – at least the ones that haven’t already faded. But also now the digital files in various formats and on numerous devices. (Oh how many digital asset management articles have I read? How many hard drives, zip drives, CD’s, and DVDs do I have?)
As creators, we have done our job. It has been a wonderful life, and we have all of these wonderful things, precious-to-us things. But remember it’s the end. Our end. What are we leaving behind for our families?
I do not like to think about dying. I have avoided death for most of my life. I realized the other day that this is what it means to be an adult; people I care about will die. Some we can prepare for and others tragically we cannot. I have had some personal experience with what is left behind, and I am trying to apply what I have learned to prepare for when it’s my turn to leave.
Let’s start by agreeing to some truths, these may not all apply universally but bear with me:
- For most of us working photographers, most of our commissioned work is worthless. Let me say it a different way, most of the work we were assigned to do was so specific and for such a particular purpose that it has no real value now. There are a few exceptions to this – projects that have historical value or photographs of people who have had important lives or that have value to their families. Of course our personal projects, works that we created of our family and friends, has value to our loved ones. But the commercial shots for that advertising agency in 1989 has no real value to anyone today.
- A disorganized, uncaptioned pile of negatives, slides or prints is just a mess, no matter how valuable the actual images might be. This is equally true for digital files on media with no references or metadata. Photographers create wonderful virtual databases in their minds of persons and places and things that are extraordinary and often include beautiful anecdotal and often embellished stories for each and every image. But when you die that virtual database dies with you. Even the most valued collections need relevant information or they are destined for the dumpster.
- Your collection is often worth a lot less than you think. The great masters of our art form are of course finding homes for their archives, but archives cost money, and there is not a lot of money for managing archives. And even those archives have to pare down the overall collection to the most pertinent images.
When I was ASMP president, I would get a call at least once a month from a family member whose father – although a few mothers, too – had passed away and they were wondering if ASMP wanted their archive. Sometimes they were under the impression that ASMP would pay them for the “Priceless Photographs” or that we could at least recommend a place for the photographs to go. Over the years many if not all ASMP members have created important works. Unfortunately, there are not enough homes for all of them and there most certainly isn’t enough money.
The best thing that we, as living photographers, can do is prepare for our final edit. Organize your archives and eliminate the images that have no value. You know best what can be discarded. Identify the important works and note why they are important to you and who might be interested in them. Write down the information and the stories. Pull out the family photos and make sure we know who is in them. Prints are far more valuable to family members than negatives and especially for those of us working in digital capture. If it is a memory worth keeping – print it.
Many of us take pride in the fact that we have every frame we ever shot, but I can tell you from experience that can be a family’s worst nightmare. No one wants to get rid of your precious pictures.
It is never to early to look at your archives and give them a good cleaning out. I started the process a couple of summers ago. An organized archive, while you are alive, can have monetary value. An organized archive after you are gone will be much easier for your loved ones to manage.