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 mahogany 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 unrestored 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 99.9% 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 else will ever be able to extract that book out of the great mass 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 waste. 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. Something to think about, huh?
(Graph by James Bishop)
[Ed. Note: This post was originally published eight years and a few days ago.
If you're interested in the subject of how objects survive, I can recommend a quirky but highly imaginative little book called The Same Ax, Twice by Howard Mansfield. The title came from an old farmer Howard met who boasted that he had used the same ax his whole life. Howard asked him if he hadn't ever had to replace the handle, and the farmer answered yes, the handle had been replaced three times, and the head had been replaced twice, but it was the same old ax.
The book is rather a wild ride, with a very expansive interpretation of the concept of "restoration," but it's also quite memorable.]
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Featured Comments from:
Gary: "When I'm not taking photographs I make and restore furniture. The antique furniture market is currently struggling in a 'double trough.' After peaking in the 1990s it has been steadily falling in value for nearly twenty years. Those very few pieces of antique furniture that can genuinely be described as 'museum quality' continue to set record auction prices, but the vast majority just grinds down in value year after year.
"Some pundits are starting to think the unthinkable, that antique furniture prices may NEVER recover. They point to the fact that in the West we're living in smaller urban spaces that struggle to accommodate the larger scale of many antiques. And they suggest that 'hygiene' factors are also at work, in a world of BMW and iPhone perfection we won't now tolerate the wonky legs, sticking drawers, and general mustiness that characterises antiques.
"Whatever the reasons, here in the UK I regularly see mid-market antique furniture that is now so cheap it is being broken up and the mahogany, walnut, and rosewood components sold to hobbyist furniture makers and luthiers."
Mike replies: That's odd and sad. I have five antique pieces of furniture, three of them family hand-me-downs, and I know the approximate provenance of four of them. And about "iPhone/BMW perfectionism," the two things I bought most recently were both reclaimed...one a table made from an old cast-iron industrial stand (original purpose unknown), and one a stool/end-table that is basically a giant oblong chunk of barn beam, refinished. It came from Montana. Perfect, it is not! And yet for what I wanted where I have it it's...well, perfect.
William Tyler: "The trough of low value is essential to the later high value. If all those old lunchboxes had been saved, none would be worth much today. The trough creates scarcity, an important component of value. The scarcity principle is also the reason for limited editions."