Don't panic. As Terry Pratchett's character, Death, is prone to note, you are going to die. But not necessarily at this moment.
Following the theme of mortality over the past week, I thought I'd bring up another aspect of the finite life of everything. Many, possibly even most of you, will leave behind a legacy of unprinted photographs that is equal to or larger than your body of printed work. (Those of you who never have prints made of your photographs may feel smug, but technically I'm still correct, as zero is greater than or equal to zero.)
Once upon a time I set off to catch up on my backlog of printing, by my definition of "caught up." That meant having a decent-looking 8x10 print of every photograph of mine that I thought deserved printing. It didn't have to be portfolio quality—it just had to be something I enjoyed looking at.
After years of effort, sometime in the late '90s, I got within ten years of that goal. Meaning I was only ten years behind in my completist printing. Then I started to lose ground again.
That doesn't mean that nothing got printed until ten-plus years later. Lots of stuff did, especially stuff that I considered so fine that it went to dye transfer almost immediately. But a lot of other portfolio-worthy photos didn't, and there are entire photo trips from which I made almost no prints of any sort. There were huge holes in Corpus Ctein.
Still are, obviously.
It's normal for a good photographer to make many more photographs than they'll ever have time to print. So, go with the flow. Life and art are uncertain, and one step beyond print longevity and survivability, we face a fundamental question of existence. The photograph that's never printed has poor prospects for survivability.
I'm OK with this. Might as well be. The alternative is to make myself crazy over something I can't fix, or do something stupid and counterproductive, like deciding I'll never make a new photograph ever again, to give myself time to get caught up.
I don't even have any real assurance that I've printed the most important stuff. That would assume that I know what photographs people will consider important after I die, and that I'm an infallible judge of my own artistic merit. I know I'm not. I have a few photos in my dye transfer portfolio that almost no one likes, except for me. My portfolio, my rules, but I don't suffer the illusion that anyone will much care about those particular photos in 100 years.
Or maybe they will. Tastes and styles change. More shrug.
Coincident with this, last week I started on a serious film scanning push, to pull together high-quality scans of any negative I'd made a dye transfer print from. It's been going extremely well—I expect to have all those negs scanned by the end of this week.
Which got me thinking: OK, how long would it take me to scan all the negs I'd ever made 8x10s of, so I (or some future Ctein fan) could make digital prints of them?
Quick back-of-the-head calculation—12 years.
Well, strike that brilliant idea. Like I want to spend the next dozen years scanning old negs. Or, alternately, spending between 25% and 50% of the rest of my life (depending on how optimistic I want to feel) scanning old negs. Bored, now. Very much bored.
So, that's not gonna happen. My heirs and future admirers will just have to pick up the incomplete pieces of my artistic life. I have more interesting things to do.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears every Wednesday on TOP.
Featured Comment by Jim: "After attempting to give many thousands of negatives to regional entities, historical societies, universities, etc., that would have been historically interesting (they covered the last 40 years of my photojournalism work) without success, a couple of years ago I built a big bonfire and burned them all. A very liberating experience! Everyone I offered them to said they had neither the money or space to deal with them, although they would have liked to preserve them. If I would pay to have them all scanned and archived, though, they would gladly take that for free! I'm not sure the past is at all relevant anymore to the current generation. The present is moving by too fast to take the time to look backwards or forward."
Featured [partial] Comment by David Zivic: "Several years ago my house burned down and I lost all my negatives and slides. it was Christmas morning so I accepted it as a gift, not a loss. My animals were OK and my camera was in my briefcase in the car. I took a photo of the burned out structure, went to my office the next day and printed it. After 30 years I was finally caught up."
Featured Comment by Jim Hayes: "Art or history? I have photo archives going back 50 years. Much of the '60s was photos of auto racing events. I scanned what I wanted and gave the lot to the Watkins Glen racing library for their collection. I also was given a large collection from the '50s from my high school art teacher who got me involved in photography and sports cars, which I have donated also.
"From this connection I have contributed to half a dozen books and many magazine articles on that era of sports car racing. I have helped numerous restorations of cars from the period. I even settled a bet on one of Stirling Moss's races.
"From my teacher's collection, we helped document an auction catalog for a famous racer's wristwatch which sold for 2.4 million euros!
"I've met others and convinced them to contribute even larger collections to the same group.
"So now I don't have to worry; these photos have a good home and have contributed to a noble cause."