« A Print Offer with a Twist | Main | More on Image Permanence »

Friday, 17 June 2011


I have to agree 100%. And while you didn't directly claim these were in order of importance, I think at least the first four are.

I'm nowhere near good on 5 or 8. Well, or 1-3, either.

Four may be the one I'm best on. I've got a number of photos prominent in their articles on Wikipedia, and some of those have turned up on a bunch of other sites. And a number of my historical photos of science fiction fandom are also at fanac.org, a specialty SF history site.

I need to work on organizing and rating and making the best ones obvious, definitely.

Mike, I suggest being famous will help whether you archive digitally or physically. How many digitised images does Magnum have on their database now do you reckon?

I remember one guy who would make 8X10 DW prints and dry mount them unto another DW sheet of paper (all archival materials and archivally processed)) which gave them a surprisingly nice weight and feel- the photographs almost became objects unto themselves. Placed into a nice compact portfolio box- excellent preservation, and presentation.

I think I'll pick option number one :)

Seriously, in a small pond like mine (Guyana) it is a real option even if the degree of fame is modest also.

If my photos are around to be seen after I'm gone what does it matter that fewer people, commensurate with the lesser degree of fame, are going to see them.


this is brilliant, and so opposite of the standard digital advice - back on to a hard drive and leave it unplugged - your suggestions are low tech, inviting, immediately viewable portfolios of one's best images. So, for ourselves, we need a reliable digitial backup (my unplugged hard drives) but to pass the images onto future generations, we should leave behind prints in an attractive portfolio, with just enough text to inform those who might be curious - a page or two. Even better would be to make 3 or 4 copies of the portfolio and simply give it to relatives or a best friend to enjoy. Odds are good that if on the date you die, you suddenly get discovered, the powers that be can get access to those images. Do I have such portfolios - NO - is your article finally going t motivate me to make said portfolios - yes - NOW is the right time, tomorrow....


You suggest it, but don't hit hard on the idea of editing. Every art form, including dance and sculpture, benefits from harsh and persistent editing.

The last few days have seen comments from people who apparently have thousands of photographs stored somewhere -- but if you look in a photo library, you'll find even the very highest-ranked photographic artists are represented by monographs that have less than a hundred full-sized photos. I think that should be a goal for people who shoot a lot -- keep as many photos as you want on your hard drives, but have your "heritage portfolio" that never contains more than 100 images. That's very manageable; any more than that, and looking at them becomes a chore. Then, as Mike says, you should do something that makes them easy to preserve: put them in a nice portfolio box tied up with a ribbon, pass copies along to all of your children and anyone else who might be interested, etc. I think they should be prints. The problem with electronic storage is that you can't pop the lld and look at them -- you have to do *something* more complicated, and all the equipment has to be compatible over time.

I also believe you should also carefully consider what kind of images you wish to preserve: my basic feeling is that landscapes, florals, macro shots, wildlife, etc., are the kind least likely to be preserved. For one thing, your shots are probably not the best in the field -- so if somebody in the future wants to see really good florals or wildlife shots, they could probably find contemporary images that are better than yours.

What people are really interested in are personal connections (photos of ancestors, especially well -known ones) and after that, photos of people living their lives: I believe that's why Impressionism has been so persistently popular -- it combines beauty with the (perhaps prettified) daily life of people in the Belle Epoque...

I'm suggesting that if you go on a wildlife safari, people in the future would be much more interested in images of the safari taking place, than in images of the wildlife itself.

I really think that if something is well enough done -- meaning well enough edited -- it has a chance to persist.

Great post Mike-spot on, how many of us have this simple concept in the digital age?
Much nicer and more permanent than an Ipad.

...dealing with a death in the family, and going through a lot of paper work and just plain junk, but every so often run across a striking photograph, black & white, from the 30's, 40's or 50's. It's apparent how this type of 'discovery' may not even be possible in the digital future, and on my mind while I do this.

I'm looking at very nice 11X14 contact prints from my Dad's 'frat' at Purdue, still in premium shape, and just stored rolled up in a drawer: the whole group in front of the house (my Dad front and center with striped socks, no less!). Dated 1946. Also very beautiful black & white studio prints of my grandmother and great-aunt (known Chicago flappers in the 20's), just shoved in a drawer; also in great shape.

Not only am I thinking of this as a waning process that helps with the grief; I'm also thinking: "...why is nobody taking pictures this nice today?"

A lab I used to use in San Francisco used to 'print' 4X5 transparencies from digital files, and I was saving up a bunch to have done on a future trip, until they closed. Still think about having it done somewhere...

List them for the beneficiary in your will, preferably with some money, too, so the recipient at least has something of guaranteed value.

Easiest way to "preserve" work is to use film.

The problem with "My Best Photographs" is that future generations may have a different idea of what's Best, or more precisely of interest and/or relevant to them. A set that embodies the current vogue for what's arty and scored highly at the local camera club is unlikely to be considered as valuable as more mundane images of family and the local environs. Too many amateur photographers think in terms of "great" images rather than context/document/message. If you can manage both all the better but a set of images that records your current society, fashions, your street (think Atget) will resonate more with those inheriting them than (for example) vacuous gaudy landscapes ... no matter how many megapixels!

You offer some good advice here, Mike, although some is perhaps a bit tongue-cheeked, eh? Becoming famous enough to belay the problem to conservators and those who want to profit from your work is, well, a stretch longer than a high school Hummer prom wagon. Achieving lasting "fame" in photography is largely over, a relic of the 20th century. Such fame today comes from admission into the "contemporary art world", with or without camera. But that's a different subject.

You core advice -- print your "best" and store it thoughtfully -- is the best advice to preserve one's images. Prints will have the best opportunity to survive to make you "famous", at least in your family's future circles.

I think that the fairest statement about the relative permanance of analog and digital images is this: Digital images may be much, much more permanent or much, much more ephemeral than analog images. A properly stored and curated digital file (that is to say, one that exists in many places in many different sorts of computer system), backed up by many archival-quality prints, is vastly more permanent than the best analog image. A digital image whose only copy serves as the desktop wallpaper of a cellphone is vasly less permanent than an analog image, since all trace of it could easily be destroyed in a tiny fraction of a second.

I use Bruce Jensen's folio option for mine and divide up my prints into 'story' lines.

I figure in another twenty years, if Smugmug is still here, I'll have the largest, most sprawling collection of photographs of my area. No one else will come close. And then I'll let my credit card expire and they will be deleted. But for a while it will be quite the roadside attraction, like the world's largest ball of string...

Great column, Mike. But you left off one of the best ways to make your work last: make daguerreotypes. They last as long as any photographs ever made, so far. They are inherently limited in size and number. They look cool enough that someone will probably want to take care of them. And they are made out of two historically valuable materials: silver and magic.

But seriously, my friend Jerry Spagnoli, one of the few modern masters of this medium, once told me that he loves to imagine someone finding one of his plates in a flea market 200 years from now.

I'll stick to burying 5.25" floppies coated in builders foam thank you very much. Surely any civilization with advanced enough technology to resurrect such devices will finally "get" my photographic zeitgeist.

My current strategy is to create a Blurb photo book about every three years with the best 100-200 pictures from that period. Edition size three - one for each of the kids, and one for the wife and I. The archival quality / longevity of the pictures in these books should be ok, and I think it ticks most of your boxes in the above. Except I'm not world famous yet :-)

I like the famous part. Set me up Mike, set me up.

It is very optimistic to believe that anyone will want to have, and look at, a collection of your (our, my) work after your death. The love, affection and respect we have for our work is ours alone; a spouse, partner or friend (or even a roomful of people in a gallery) may express a liking when shown an image or two, but the idea that one's entire ouevre will be a desirable legacy is surely mistaken, unless one IS famous and the work has monetary value.

A photographer's work is so personal; it IS the photographer; it has no life without the photographer; when the photographer dies, the work dies too.

The discussions by Ctein, you, and others, of how long photographs will last, leads me to ask a few questions. There seems to be an assumption that all photographs should be saved forever, no matter what. So I ask: How long is “forever”?; Why ALL photographs?; Will many of these trillions (or more) images be of any value to anyone?; In some distant future, will anyone care? And that assumes we as a species don’t self destruct first.
We already have permanence of 200 years or more available. By special measures (e.g. sealed in nitrogen in cases at controlled humidity this can be extended by hundreds more. For images of artistic merit, historical significance, of family interest, or in a millennium, of archaeological interest, many images may well be worth saving. But ALL? True, some may want old images simply because they are old. However, for such collectors, scarcity is value, and if we save all photos, there will be no scarcity or value.
I know that in my long experience with photography (60+ years) I have made many pictures that I really don’t think are worth diddly! I wouldn’t even take a deep breath to save them. They are either technically crap, were failed experiments, have lost all relevance to anything now or in the future, had some ephemeral value at the time, now lost, or otherwise would just take up storage space -physical or virtual. And no one else is likely to find value in them either. They get culled. And yes, there are a few which I have lost that I wish I hadn’t, but are probably gone. But save everything? No way. And I think this is true for most photographers. Whatever our personal criteria, we all make judgments on our images, and generally prefer not to show our failures (unless for the education of others).
I realize that, especially in the art world, values change, and what was once considered junk, is now high art - consider Impressionism. Still, there are values, and unless we have some psychological issue, we make judgments and act accordingly. So I don’t expect to have everyone agree with the above. Still, lets not go overboard on preservation.
Richard Newman

If I am dead who cares?

Yes, that's a wonderful idea, and one that your relatives are likely to highly value in the future.


"A photographer's work is so personal; it IS the photographer; it has no life without the photographer; when the photographer dies, the work dies too."

That was probably the belief of the person who threw all of Eugene Atget's prints and negatives in the trash. But then Berenice Abbott thought otherwise.


Plus One for Soeren's Blurb book, been thinking about the same thing myself...I've kept over-sized scrapbooks with point-and-shoot photos mounted in them since I opened my first studio in 1980. I'm on scrapbook number 10 right now, but recently went to a party where someone brought the host a direct-to-press hardcover book (I don't think it was Blurb, but one of the others) they had put together from cell phone snaps of a recent trip they all took to Portland. Can't even begin to tell you what an impact it had on everybody. And even tho they were just cell phone pix, they really seemed far more precious in the finished book form. Started me thinking about maybe trying this same thing in two to three year blocks of time, and instead of pasting various three dimensional objects in the scrapbooks,(which eventually fall out of make a pretty lumpy book), shooting pix of them instead for inclusion in the Blurb book.

Since I have no heirs, I certainly hope I remain 'quick' enough to be able to page through these things, and amuse myself in my dotage. After I'm gone, I'm pretty sure everything is hitting the shredder. Probably not going to be a Vivian Maier story here...

"That was probably the belief of the person who threw all of Eugene Atget's prints and negative in the trash. But then Berenice Abbott thought otherwise."

E.J. Bellocq vis a vis Lee Friedlander too.

Have a real estate agent discover your work, post it on a blog, have a book and movie made. Helps if you're dead, worked in complete anonymity, and your work is seriously good.

Not that it makes any difference to anyone else — it shouldn't, but I intend to destroy everything [just] before I myself cease to exist.

My purpose in making art in any form has always been solely to please myself, and in that I have succeeded. Others should make their own art; it is far more rewarding to the spirit than looking at something someone else did some time.

In fifty, maybe a hundred years, the human race will most probably be extinct — leaving all those archival [signed and numbered!] prints for the cockroaches.

I, for one, have had a most excellent time seeing and knowing.

Go with grace and joy,

Thanks, Mike. BTW, I just discussed your post with my best friend, Richard, tonight. The grandfather of his wife was into landscape photography and left behind box after box of landscape slides, but nearly nothing documenting their house, the children growing up, etc. Thinking about what should be left behind for posterity, they surely would have liked him to proritise otherwise...

Dear Richard,

I believe I addressed this in the comments section to my column.

It ain't about the art. You have no idea what will prove to be of historical import.

pax / Ctein

At the age of 57, I find myself just not washing my film and prints as long as I probably should. If the they only last for the next 20-25 years, that probably will work for me.

You can't plan these things. See Vivian Maier.

This whole post brings up a question I've always had. When Garry Winogrand died he had thousands of rolls either undeveloped, not proofed or unedited. Did his heirs ever work through his unfinished work completely? Did anyone ever edit those photos into a final retrospective? This huge body of work just astounds me. In the 70's I thought putting a 100 feet of Tri-X through a couple of Pen F's in one day was doing fairly good but that guy must have worn out his thumb.

"When Garry Winogrand died he had thousands of rolls either undeveloped, not proofed or unedited. Did his heirs ever work through his unfinished work completely? Did anyone ever edit those photos into a final retrospective?"

Garry Winogrand left something like 9,000 unprocessed rolls behind when he died. The film was eventually developed and proofed under the direction of John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, paid for with a grant from Walter Elisha of Springs Industries, who was for many years a major benefactor of the Photography Department at MoMA. I believe the only ones that have ever been published are just under 30 pictures included in the book "Figments from the Real World."

Purely by coincidence, Mr. Elisha was also a business protegé of my grandfather's. He used to send my grandfather complimentary copies of all the MoMA books his company helped fund (including "Figments"), and my grandfather would pass them along to me. I still have them in my library.


I wouldn't say we have NO idea of what will prove to be of historic import. We can guess, and sometimes probably pretty well. I would say that Jim Marshall probably knew his pictures of famous rock musicians would be of some sort of value to history, and I'm fairly certain that pictures of closeups of flowers won't ever be. It's possible that both of those guesses could be wrong, but more likely they'll be right.

Plus there's the question of varying audiences--"import" to whom? Historians is one audience. Future enthusiasts another. Family heirs another. Then of course there's potential interest from quarters we can't predict. For me it's fun and diverting to "put myself in the place" of these various potential viewers and try to see some of my pictures through their eyes, and try to imagine how they might see them, what will or won't interest them.


Dear Mike,

Nope, I'll stick with "NO idea."

Historically, I don't think many of Jim's rock music photos will be especially important, because most of the subjects are very well documented. I can think of exceptions-- the photograph of Keith Richards, backstage, penciling out the play list for the upcoming show tells us something of how artists of the period worked, which is hard to get from the public record. But most are "merely" great photographs of events well recorded.

As for your flower example... there's a huge brick of a book out right now which is a monumental history of China. Haven't read it yet, but a serious historian friend of mine, who is grinding through it, was telling me how historians are documenting the disappearance of elephants from China over the millennia, which corresponds with deforestation and agriculture patterns.

They're reading random scraps of poetry and prose by local, minor scribblers of the periods.

Why? Because you can clearly distinguish writings mentioning elephants that were written by people who were directly familiar with elephants, in contrast to ones that knew of them second-hand or only as exotic strange creatures.

In 500 years, if climate change (and social change) patterns continue, your neighborhood gardens (if they still exist) will be very different from what they are today. All those flower photos taken by folks in their back yard will be a goldmine of information about growing practices, preferences, plant choices, and even what species have gone extinct (or at least out of favor).

That's the thing. You really don't know. And what drives historians the most nuts is all the stuff they don't know about day-to-day life in the past because no one thought it was important to document and, anyway, it was "stuff everyone knew."

I'm not saying anyone has some kind of specific societal obligation to preserve their photos. But the collective preservation provides the ultimate in cross-time, crowd-sourced data, and the data that is most at risk is precisely the data you don't think is important.

pax / Ctein

We'll disagree, then. What you're saying is that one can't possibly know everything that will interest posterity, which is true. That perspectives change is also true--the lives of peasants in 1500 wasn't considered to be part of "history" as it was then understood, and there will be concerns, maybe even major ones, in the future that we can't foresee now. But we can still make fair guesses. We know SOMETHING about it, because we know what we're now interested in knowing about when we look at history.

If we knew nothing about it at all, no one would have any idea what to preserve and record or even notice as events pass, and that clearly isn't the case. When George Thomason collected and concealed his collection of tracts, pamphlets and broadsides during the English Civil War, burying them under his floor and hiding them in the houses of his friends to keep them from the authorities, he was doing it because he knew history would be interested in them. Few others did, but he did. And he was absolutely right--history has been very interested in them ever since. We're not completely in the dark in regard to these things.


I think a few hundred large JPEGs stored in publicly accessible albums on a half dozen or more free picture sharing sites (Picassa, Flickr, Photobucket, etc) in the cloud have a pretty good chance of surviving inevitable corporate mergers and bankruptcies and technological advances well into the future. This is quite different and more secure than relying on whatever current type of media storage device you might be using locally or even prints.

An excellent post. I agree with it all. I do wonder why photographers think it is essential to maintain either digital files or negatives in order to produce any number of identical copies. Most other artistic work has just one item e.g. a painting, with no method of reproduction other than painting another one. Perhaps w should just make one really good print from our files or negatives and call that it!

It is very optimistic to believe that anyone will want to have, and look at, a collection of your (our, my) work after your death.


I'm still not convinced that our petabytes of flower close-ups and cat photos will be interesting to anybody, but IF you go that way, the key is to make your work accessible to those who might be interested in it. Think of that person, and then the rest falls into place. Example:

Someone might be interested in knowing how his neighborhood looked 50 years ago. How would he find your photos? By rummaging randomly through boxes in thrift stores? Or buying old harddisks and see what's there? For this man, here's the deal: geotag and date your photos and upload them to as many photosites as possible. He will find them, and appreciate your work.

Family photos? Imagine what will happen when you die: someone, perhaps even a stranger, will be contracted to clean out your place. If you have your photos hidden in boxes in the attic, they will be disposed of, no matter for how many centuries the photos might have survived in the attic. Solution: share your work as long as you can. Educate as many family members of your photos as possible, and show them where they are. Make it easy for them to go to your place and get them when the time has come.

Cat photos, flower macros, sunsets - forget about it. For one person, it's your cat that you love. For the rest of humanity, it's yet another cat photo.

One more possibility, if you live in a smaller town like I do, you can donate decent documentary prints to the city museum if you have one. They might stay there a long time. Just label them properly.

Steve Smith...

...interesting, you seem to be on the same wave-length as my sister, an artist and children's book illustrator...even back in the day when film ruled, she would just get a print of what she shot for inclusion in her extensive and meticulously maintained scrap-books, then she'd just toss out the negatives!

Digital has been a boon for her, because she can save up all the pics and re-look at them after a while and edit out the ones that seem less impressive on reflection, then take a disc to the local drug-store and get nicer prints than she could make on her home printer, on real photographic paper, for 29 cents apiece. There's no negative to toss, so there's less waste. And for her process, she just wants the 'one' image.

I admire the method of imagery she has chosen for her artistic process...

It's interesting to watch the discussions on places like Shorpy.com, a site that posts lots of (fairly good) scans of old photos. Lots of the things people are interested in very clearly weren't the subjects of the photos; they're side details that were included in a shot. Prices on a menu, or brand names advertised, or relative numbers of cars vs. horses. Sometimes it's what's reflected in a window, even.

Even a portrait of a person against a plain background may be interesting for unexpected reasons -- hairstyle, clothing style, presence or absence of tattoos, styles of jewelry, number of ear piercings and other piercings, and so forth.

This doesn't mean anybody will be interested in my file of 100,000 or so (and growing) photos after I lose interest. But it sure does make it harder to figure out what will be of interest.

Obvious things to do--make sure the date, time, and physical location are clearly identified in your photos (I like using IPTC fields in digital photos). Make sure the people are identified. When outdoors, GPS coordinates might be good -- even if the system changes, people will probably know how to translate the old coordinates.

Rare happy stories like that of Eugene and Berenice are probably the exception to what I suspect is the rule, that there have been and continually are many Atget equivalents blindly thrown out with the rubbish each year.

The comments to this entry are closed.