I find this a particularly poignant picture. It's preserved in the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress; I found it on page five of Michael L. Carlebach's excellent American Photojournalism Comes of Age (one of my favorite books about photography, by the way).
It shows the photography staff of the newspaper The New York World in 1909. Or at least we can assume the man on the left and the man on the stairs are photographers, since they're shown with cameras. I direct your attention, as Michael Carlebach does, to the wall at the back of the room that also displays the clock. Know what those are? They're negatives—the newspaper's photographic archive. The hundreds of cases you see there in neatly-shelved rows contained thousands of negatives of newsworthy events, people, and places, collected at considerable expense by the paper and with great labor and sometimes risk by the men in the picture and their cohorts.
When the newspaper folded, all those negatives were thrown away.
People sometimes ask me what the best method of preserving their pictures is, and my somewhat flip but I believe trenchant answer is, "be famous." One of the problems of historical preservation is that people only tend to preserve things that are valuable. And the problem with that is that value fluctuates over time.
Most of you are computer users. Ever thrown away a perfectly good computer simply because it was old and worth nothing? Early computers are beginning to be collectible even now, but what do you think a pristine, mint-condition, working Apple 128k Macintosh, vintage 1984, will be worth in, say, 2109, or 2209? It doesn't take a great leap of imagination to think of such a thing being worth the equivalent of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I threw one away once.
The problem is that many kinds of objects go through a period in their potential lifespans when they don't "pencil out"—they're not worth keeping or preserving because they're not worth any money. Here's an approximate graph of the typical value of many types of objects. The x-axis is time and the y-axis is value; the horizontal line is $0.
For some objects, what pertains would more accurately be called a trough of low value, not no value—remaindered photo books and certain old cameras come to mind—because they never actually quite reach zero value. But other objects might accurately be graphed considerably below the $0 line—those would be things that are worth nothing but that require maintenance, expense, or storage space to keep and preserve. My great-grandfather's sailboat, for instance—a gorgeous 29-foot sloop made of cedar and mahagony that was originally built for Civil War General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur. It's currently being stored at considerable annual expense by a cousin who's into historic preservation, but it's worth no money in its present condition. Graphed, I imagine it would fall well below the $0 line.
My favorite example of the Trough of No Value comes from a former acquaintance whose back room had a high, narrow shelf running all the way around it, about a foot below the ceiling. Arrayed on the shelf were dozens of kids' lunchboxes from the 1950s and '60s. He told me that not only are such lunchboxes collectible now, but that they're actually fairly hard to find. Time was, of course, when most every schoolkid had a little metal lunchbox (poor kids "brown-bagged it"). But the kids grew up, the school lunch program got started, and who wanted to keep old lunchboxes around? They weren't useful any more. They weren't worth anything. And, since they were almost all used for their intended purpose, many were damaged or worn by use (I vaguely remember owning one that was rusty and had a dent). People naturally threw them away. The "trough of no value" for lunchboxes was long and harsh. That's why they're not so common today as you might guess—because not that many made it through the trough. (By the way, the inset photo is a corner of Allen Woodall's Lunchbox Museum in Columbus, Georgia.)
Even great treasures can go through a trough of no value, too. Consider that Vincent Van Gogh used to trade finished paintings for new tubes of paint—and the art supplies merchant was doing him a favor because he took pity on him. The paintings were worthless at the time.
Craftsmanship is a preservation method
That's why "being famous" is a great way to preserve your work—because value is the #1 preservative for old objects. But want to know another? Craftsmanship. One of the great hazards of survival through time is the lack of a market and a lack of trade value, but another is simply shoddiness. (I have to chuckle whenever I read yet another description of American frontier log cabins as having been well crafted or sturdily or beautifully built. The much more likely truth is that 99% of frontier log cabins were horribly built—it's just that all of those fell down. The few that have survived intact were the ones that were well made. That doesn't mean all of them were.) It's not just that things that are poorly made deteriorate more readily, it's also that they signal their own worthlessness. Or, in the case of an archive of photos, they might actually hide their own worth. I have in mind making a book of my best 35mm black-and-white pictures, for instance, and I have it in my head which pictures would be included. But if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, nobody will ever be able to extract that book out of the great motley of my hither-and-yon mess of negatives.
Sometimes, even when something has no monetary value, people will keep it just because it seems like it's too beautiful to throw away. The expression people use is one I'm sure will sound familiar to you: "it seems a shame to throw it away." Well, why should it seem a shame? It's because people also value what other people value, and if something is beautifully made and carefully encased—honored, you might say—then it projects or advertises its own value: it will be obvious to people who come across it that someone—at least the person who made it!—valued it at one time, so maybe they should value it, too. Book dealers are very familiar with this, because of the frequency with which members of the public bring in beautifully-bound but worthless books. (The corollary must also be true, that very valuable books are thoughtlessly discarded all the time because they don't look valuable. But that doesn't bear thinking about.)
If your work is beautifully printed and matted and housed in a clamshell box or a custom album, I think it's more likely to project value, less likely to be discarded, and more likely to make it to the far side of the dreaded Trough of No Value—never mind the actual pictures. Something to think about, huh?
Graph by James Bishop
Featured [partial] Comment by Hugh Crawford: "[Re] photos surviving the trough, take a look at Superbomba's collection of other peoples photos on flickr. They are for the most part amazing. Not because you know these people, not because the photos are examples of good technique, and not because they are strange although many are, but there is something there that draws you in."
Mike replies: Lotsa "punctum," in Barthesian terms. (See Hugh Look's comment under the "My Old Piano" post.)
Featured Comment by Jeff: "When I first started reading this piece I immediately thought about the value of photographs. My theory is that as documentary images get further away from the 'present' they become more valuable. You've caught a moment or series of moments in time. Seen as part of the present they are ubiquitous and vying for attention with many other moments from that particular 'present.'
"But as those moments recede into the past, the more they reflect not the 'now' but the 'then.' And as something that represents a time lost forever their value increases.
"When I first photographed the physical and social effects of the building of 'the last freeway' in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, a critic called them 'prosaic.' Dull and mundane. Last year a major museum bought the work, in part because they had grown out of their dullness. They became vintage.
"By the way, the work can be seen online (in my opinion some are still prosaic but add to the total story, while others are incredibly beautiful and represent those moments in time)."
Featured Comment by Lars K. Christensen: "What this interesting post and the comments illustrate nicely, is that 'value' is not something absolute or intrinsic to an object, but something that is attributed to the object in a certain context. And as the context change, the value may change likewise.
"In a market economy, value is often equated with price. However, objects can have value in many other ways. Value is often a function of the story or meaning the object conveys to somebody—be that an individual or a certain group of people.
"This is where public museums come into play. Their objective is to find, preserve, exhibit and communicate such objects, which convey stories or meaning of importance to society.
"This, I can say from my own personal experience, is not an easy task.
"At the Dept. of Modern History, Danish National Museum, where I work, we do collect photographs. However, we seldom accept or reject photos based on their artistic value—and never on the basis of their commercial value.
"One of the main aims of the department is to documents changes in people’s daily life throughout the last 350 years. Thus, we have in our collection both the archives of commercial photographers, family albums and personal collections as well as a vast number of 'diverse' photos, including such that has been taken by museum staff for documenting purpose.
"What is important for us is to gather as much information as possible for each photo. As we ultimately collect objects in order to be able to tell stories of the past, we need as much information about the objects as possible. A photo with no information about who took it, why and when can be useless to us, even if it’s a beautiful example of photographic craftsmanship.
"That is also why, that in an ideal world we would collect most of our objects not just from what the public more or less randomly comes to offer us, but as part of carefully planned research programs. This would ensure that we get as much relevant information as possible and that we expand our collections in areas, which are particularly relevant. Unfortunately, we have only very limited funding to do so.
"Looking back at the historical evolution of photography as a mass medium, from the point of view of a museum, there has and will be different challenges. From the early period of photography, the number of objects to be collected is scarcer and some of them involve at lot of work and expenses, when it comes to preservation and storing. During the mid-20th century there is a vast increase in the number of objects, since photography becomes accessible for everybody.
"But still: as long as taking pictures—even family snapshots—involves a rather lengthy and not especially cheap process of buying the film, taking the picture, having it processed, sorting out the best ones and putting them in an album, there is a great chance that the family album more or less consciously reflects the self-image of its producers: these are the pictures, that the original photographer valued and cherished. This makes such an album a possible source of how people at a certain time and space interpreted their own lives.
"With the advance of digital photography, however, the number of pictures has exploded. The process of photographing is now quick and almost free, so there is no reason not to photograph anything that catch your eyes—be it important or not. For the future museum curators, who inherit a collection of digital snapshots, the job of sorting out the meaning of the photos as the photographer’s interpretations of his or her own life becomes much more complicated. What is important here, what is not—and in what sense and context?
"There are great challenges ahead, in the area of research methodology and theory."
Curator and senior reseacher