On Leaving a Photographic Legacy

There from Here

Key: R20110123-155615

Regular readers may be wondering what happened to my series on a Linux-based photography workflow. I haven’t forgotten it. I was interrupted by a business trip to Japan and some out-of-town visitors. I have a couple of articles almost done on that and those will be coming up soon.

Meanwhile I leave you with another column I wrote for the local photography club newsletter.

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The 1/250 Second Banana

Dear Readers,

Do you have an interest in your photographic legacy? I am referring to your body of photographic work and your association with it after you move on from this world.

It’s an interesting question to think about. For some, it is all about the journey, and not about the legacy; they could care less what happens to their photographs after they are gone. For others, it may be important to keep the photographs available and even documented/organized so that their children, grandchildren or interested family historians can have interesting material to sift through. For some photography is enough of their life’s work that they would like broader recognition of some kind. Many artists are not appreciated so much in their time, but only after they pass on. Some may already have a body of prominent work, and have historical or financial considerations to consider. Finally, even the most mundane photographs may be of great interest to anthropologists and historians of the future, to understand what life was like in our times. Imagine a researcher 1000 years from now recovering and decoding digital images or negatives from a carefully preserved and documented time capsule.

If you are interested in a photographic legacy for any of these reasons, it is well worth your while to think about what you can do now to aid those will come after. If you follow photography news on the internet you will no doubt by now have heard of Vivian Maier, a slightly eccentric french-american nanny that spent most of her life in Chicago and amassed decades worth of mid-to-late century street photography shots, mostly taken with a Rollei TLR. She did not make any concerted effort to organize or show her photography, and consequently almost no one knew of her work. After her death, several boxes of hers that were in storage were auctioned off at a business that routinely sells abandoned items. The boxes contained a few prints, a number of developed rolls of negatives, and even more rolls of undeveloped film. They were purchased by a young Chicago-area businessman named John Maloof who had an interest in real-estate: rummaging through the boxes, he recognized some of the locations in some of the prints and thought that there might be some historical interest. Although not a photographer himself, after spending some time examining the prints and negatives, they began to capture his imagination. Vivian clearly had a very good eye for street photography. He began to scan some of the negatives and prints and post some of them on the Flickr street photography groups, asking if there was anything interesting about the work. Due to the overwhelmingly positive feedback and interest he received, he began to educate himself about photography, street photography and Vivian Maier. Who was this interesting and reclusive woman? Well, long story short, due to his efforts there is now significant public interest in her work, and a show of her work is now on display at the Chicago Cultural Center through April 3rd. Maloof and his associates have raised money to make a book and a film about her life. It seems certain that she will be ultimately be recognized somewhere in the pantheon of important street photographers of the 20th century.

With a great story like this, it is easy to overlook the fact that her boxes of photographs could very easily have ended up in a landfill. Plastic and paper being what they are, it is unlikely that she would have any legacy, however minor, but for a very lucky break. If she had taken any steps in thinking about her photographic legacy she might have improved the odds greatly, and perhaps received at least some recognition during her lifetime. There are two important lessons here: one is to try and show your work to people, and the other is to try to insure that your photographs are safely protected, organized and documented. Accomplish both and you greatly increase the chances that you may receive some recognition for your work in this life, and perhaps more importantly, that someone else with an interest in your work may find it after you are gone, possibly resulting in posthumous recognition or at least making it of use to others.

Although digital images may seem ephemeral, being only bits on some kind of storage media, they also offer a very compelling way to safeguard your work because they can be duplicated without loss of quality. By copying your files to multiple media, and storing them in multiple locations (for example, a cool, dry room in your home, a safe-deposit box at the bank, and a secure location on the internet), you greatly reduce the chances of a catastrophic loss of your work. Mold, theft, fire, hurricane, etc. will not deprive you of your work. If you shoot film, or produce hand-altered prints, I highly recommend scanning your work to afford the same kinds of protection. Be sure to check the locally-accessible media periodically, and transfer to newer, safer formats when possible. This does not have to be onerous; once or twice a year might be sufficient.

When storing your work, consider carefully the importance of widely used and understood image file formats like TIFF and JPEG. Proprietary RAW formats come and go, and due to the short-sighted and protective nature of camera companies some of these formats have even contained encrypted parts. Due to the huge number of JPEG images out there it is very likely that someone 200 years from now will have a way to view one. Whether we can say the same for the unique RAW format of a Canon DSLR camera that sold from 2003-2004 is highly questionable.

Finally, consider the ways in which you can make your work visible/accessible to others. Not only is this helpful in receiving possibly useful feedback, but you greatly increase the chances the someone will recognize or remember that you have a body of photographic work, and when you pass away, it may receive increased scrutiny. Shows, magazines and other short-lived exhibitions are good for creating interest, but they tend to pass quickly. Nevertheless they increase the likelihood of someone taking further interest in your work. Consider longer term exposure: is there a place where you can donate a piece of work that will hang for a long time? Making a book and giving a few copies to interested family or friends is also good. Putting your work online in a web site is yet another way (and there is a synergy here with having an off-site copy of your work). For a web site it is important to remember that just creating a web site is not enough to drive interest (if you build it they will not necessarily come); usually one needs to engage in activities that drive traffic and eyeballs to the work (e.g. blogging, marketing, etc.). Still, just having the work internet accessible means that someone could discover it more easily, and that could be significant.

Time to wrap up. I hope that I have made the point that no matter what kind of photographer you are, there is a case for a photographic legacy, and that it is worthwhile thinking about it. Perhaps your decision is not to leave a legacy, and that is a reasonable choice, if consciously made. Perhaps that was Vivian’s decision. Yet I think that was not her decision. The fact that she carted these boxes of things around from employer to employer, and finally into storage tells me that they were very important to her, and that she was thinking a little bit about her photographic legacy. But Vivian Maier got lucky that John Maloof found her work just in time. Even back then she could have been more careful.

Till next time,

Eric Jeschke

ps. for more information on Vivian Maier, visit her article on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vivian_Maier) and follow the links at the bottom.

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