By Gordon Lewis
In the latest issue of Black & White Photography magazine, Mike muses about the implications and effects of turning 50. Now, with his recent illness and his announcement of the deaths of Phil Davis and John Szarkowski, I find myself thinking about my own mortality—or, more specifically, my photographic legacy.
For the record, I’m 54 years old. I’ve been actively involved in shooting, developing and printing my own photographs since 1967. (Do the math.) I’ve also been a part-time pro photographer and writer. One result is that I’ve shot thousands of images. Most of them are stored in my office, either as negatives, slides, or prints, but I’ve got several hundreds more in digital form on my hard drive and CD-ROMs. I’m still taking pictures, so the total number of images is only going to increase.
The question I find myself thinking about a lot these days is what the hell to do with them. Without an answer to that question, what’s the point of simply adding to the total? I now shoot only for enjoyment, not for money. Thanks to my wife’s interest in scrapbooking, most of my family snapshots are now displayed on colorful cloth backgrounds with faux frames, next to paper cut-outs and trinkets. Love it or hate it, it’s a lot better than storing them all in a box somewhere.
But that’s exactly where most of my photos sit. Paper carton or hard drive, a box is a box. I’m only too willing to concede that only a few hundred of them would be of interest to anyone other than me. Perhaps only a few dozen would qualify as award-winners—but again, what’s the difference, if they’re all just sitting in a box? And what interest or value would they be to my wife and kids once I’m dead and buried? Is the whole point of this my own personal amusement, or am I serving some greater purpose?
This are not questions I expect you to answer for me. It is, however, one that you may want to ask yourselves.
Featured Comment by Charles Dunton: "I'll take a stab at the 'greater purpose' part. In 1898 my great-great-great-uncle took up photography after having been a collector of 'views' for a number of years. Since he lived in NYC, he joined the Camera Club of NY. He lived for only 3 more years, but during this period he was recognized by his peers as being an excellent photographer, appearing in juried shows in Philadelphia, Chicago, and London. When he died in 1901 (on a photo scouting trip to Canada) he left behind about 700 film and glass plate negatives. These, along with all of his other photo gear he left to his nephew. The nephew selected about 400 of these negatives and made cyanotype prints. He carefully numbered each image and on about 10% added a short caption. He then put the photos in a box, along with about 50 of his own, and took them to his uncle's father's home for safe keeping.
"They stayed in that cardboard box (not exactly archival) in the third floor attic (not exactly temperature controlled) of what later became my grandparents home for the next 85 years. Each summer during my youth, my sisters and I would spend a month with our grandparents and every so ofter I would sneak out the box and look at all the strange blue photos of places like Alaska, the Sierras, Yosemite, Yellowstone, fishing on the Nipigon River in Canada, tarpon fishing in Florida, and black sharecroppers living in Georgia and Florida. I wondered who these people were, and why my uncle took the photos and even where many were taken; but no one in the family knew anything anymore except for the few captions and who had taken them and that he belonged to the CCNY at one time.
"In 2003 the photos made their way to me from my sister. I couldn't stand not knowing any longer, so I scanned them and put them on the web and began an internet search that has taken me from England to California and Canada to Florida. Along the way I've corresponded with over 50 people who were able to add bits and pieces of information. I've learned a tremendous amount about the photographer uncle I never knew, the places he visited, and the people and sights he photographed. But there are so many more question I would love to ask him. I sure would love to find the journals he kept. Maybe someday I will.
"So, after that rather long-winded lead-in, here's the 'greater purpose' part. Take your favorite images, your most interesting images, your most personal images, and print them on archival paper with archival inks. Then write about them—pretend you're writing to the great-great-great-nephews (and nieces) you will never know—and then box them up and send them to someone in your family. In fact, make several copies and send them to several family members. You may never be famous to the rest of the world, but I can almost guarantee you will be famous to your descendants in the 22nd century who will marvel at what people and places looked like in the 20th century. (They will probably also marvel at these flat, 2-dimensional things we call prints, but that's another story.)
"If you've read this far and have any interest, you can look at my great-great-great-uncle's photos and read what little I've managed to learned about him and his photography. Good luck, and good shooting."