A Photographic Life… and then what?

Picture: Photographer shooting sunrise light on North Peak, Hoover Wilderness, Eastern Sierra, California

Image: Photographer shooting sunrise light on North Peak, Hoover Wilderness, Eastern Sierra, California

What happens to our pictures after we’ve shed our mortal coil? What are our families left to do with all the thousands of photos we’ve taken during our life-long quest for those perfect shots? Keep them? Abandon them? Spend weeks of their lives sorting through them, deciding which to keep and which to let go of?

I ask this following a powerfully personal and moving experience I had last week. Some of you may recall that early this year I devoted some of my energy to selling some photography gear for a woman whose husband died after a bout with cancer. Unfortunately, they got married while he was struggling with the disease, and since he was convinced he wasn’t going to succumb, they really didn’t discuss much of anything to do with his photography or his photo business. Worse even, when he did quickly succumb to the ravages of the disease, he took all of his business and photo-folder encrypted passwords with him.

Now this woman is moving out of state. She doesn’t want to bring the many tens of thousands of slides her husband shot, everything from Antarctica, to polar bears, to climbing, to flowers galore, with her on the move. There are boxes and boxes of his slides sitting in her house. So to help her, I spent a full day culling through his collection, pulling what I as a Photo Editor would consider the best of his collection. My job was to try and whittle down his collection to maybe a couple thousand slides at most; something she could manage with during the move, and still have enough images to pull together a special and personal book of his images to give to family members or put in slide shows. As I sat there plowing through the boxes of his slides, I became extremely cognisant that what I was looking at was “A Photographic Life.” And here I was, deciding which images were to be salvaged from that life, as the rest were destined to be destroyed. It was certainly a powerful and moving feeling to be sure.

And as we talked, some of the questions that came up begged to be answered, and many of which we photographers should consider ourselves before we forever hand off the reigns to our collection. For those of us who spent years shooting on film or slides, how should our negatives or transparencies be destroyed? Which photos would we want our family to keep? Would keeping everything cause an undue burden on our loved ones? For those of us selling our images or posting them online, does your family know who’s selling your work, or have access to the accounts and websites where you’ve been posting your work? Is there someplace where your family can donate your images to, so that they’ll live on and have a greater life or service beyond just being pixels on a website, forum, or hard drive?

I don’t have all the answers myself, but I feel this profoundly personal experience warrants asking those questions and more.

I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Do you have a plan for your images after you’ve gone? Are there places out there where families in a similar position to this woman could find out more resources or information? What, if anything, would you like to see done with your images once you’ve gone on to the next place? Not easy questions, but definitely something worth considering or discussing.

Also, if you like this post, and given the importance of the subject, it would mean a lot to me if you hit one of those neat little social SHARE buttons at the top of this post. I think the more people that chime in, the better off we can all be, especially since we’re all living a Photographic Life.

PS: I’d just like to make a note that I was not doing this for her as a client; she’s not. This is just one of those paying it forward things. I knew her husband for many years through a number of professional forums. The real reason I’ve put in the time and effort to help this woman is simple; “There but for the grace of God go I.” And if this was myself that had passed, I sure would rest easier knowing someone had stepped up to help my wife deal with my collection of images.



 




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17 Comments on “A Photographic Life… and then what?”

  1. Lon Overacker Says:

    Gary, looks like I get to be the first to comment. Actually, with your opening image, I thought this was going to be about Galen Rowell’s files. If I’m not mistaken, isn’t that Galen in the photograph above? I think there is extra meaning with the use of that image.

    This is something I’ve thought about for a number of years now. Not that my archives have any value, except to me… but what am I leaving for my wife and son? Images to be tossed, sorted? It’s a great question. Last I counted I have over 15,000 35mm slides and working on something like 2,000 4×5′s. Just guessing I could probably toss 90% of the slides that are sitting in binders just a couple of feet away from me.

    A great topic and question to ponder. It’s on my to do list, but is it on my bucket list?

  2. Aniana Says:

    I am not a photographer. But as i browse my email and the members of each community I begun to shoot from my Cellphone. Then my co-teacher saw me taking pic, she lend me her camera in which she is not using for a very very long time.
    I don’t know what to do with the pic. BUT i guess i owned it. Funny but i don’t know if i could even sell it. But on second thought who knows? RIGHT.
    I love your blog and the quest. Fascinatingly it made me think. WHY NOT. if not then not if YES then it is good. WHICHEVER may be. IT is what we wish.
    Blessed day. To you thanks for the share and the invite.

  3. Eloine Says:

    I really hope the man you are talking about was not the one in the opening photo since I do remember this shot?
    I’ve thought about this question myself. I’m not the professional that you are so mostly my photos are personal. Since they are personal I feel that whoever gets them will just throw them away since it means nothing to them. I did inherit much of grandfathers photo of family though and I still need to go through. I can’t throw them away because I feel like I would be throwing him away. He loved his camera and was always taking snapshot. So in storage they take up space for someday they may see the light again.

  4. Kim Anglin Says:

    Wonderfully written with great poise and heartfelt emotion. These are big questions. All of us need to think about it as i think our photography is very different than other objects. Really it’s so much more personal and a part of ourselves. Like you, there is no one answer. This is, however, something we all need to think about and perhaps give people direction in our wills and trusts. Thank you for helping your colleague’s wife. That was such a nice thing to do. We all need to be like you.

  5. enlightphoto Says:

    Lon: No, it’s not Galen. It’s a buddy of mine who used to work with Galen though.

  6. Joe Says:

    I’ve thought about this a lot since Vivian Maier’s treasure trove was discovered in Chicago. No one will buy a stack of old disk drives found in the corner of some garage sale so they can wander through my photographic life. So, for my family, and especially my kids, I’ve begun making 11×14 prints of the best images and then creating theme-based Blurb books of everything that I feel is worth them keeping as either a memory or their own appreciation.

  7. Alberto Says:

    Some thought about this I made a mounth ago. My mother had two uncles who had traveled a lot. They left all their photos to my mother. To me is as the testament, all we think about it, but we tend to put off the decision, so much depends on the case. My mother kept all their photos, those that who were memories, at least for her, now are in some album kept with care. But a lot of diapo, negatives, and some pictures last month I saw that were in forgotten boxes.
    Before or then I’ll begin to sort it, they were in Russia before the 1988, I hope to find the pictures from this travel.
    The point is that I began to collect some of the data stored in my computers and I wrote all the password in a paper sheet. So the pictures aren’t lost, but sincerely about the use for now is a big question mark. In future I think that most will depend on who will the heir. At this stage I’m more concerned im making accesible the photos.

  8. David Leland Hyde (@PhilipHydePhoto) Says:

    This post sure hit home for me, Gary. Sounds like you were living a page out of my life for a time. Makes you think, ay?

  9. Richard Wong Says:

    Great post and thought-provoking questions, Gary. I would hope my family kept my image collection and hopefully I’d have set it up to transition it over to them. Hope my kids could make some money on them too but I’d mainly be interested in having them be able to see into my life and remember who I was.

  10. Ron Sherman Says:

    Two years ago I got serious about doing something about my photo archives collection that spans 50+ years. I surveyed some of my contemporaries and most did not have a clue what to do with their images. The only exceptions were the photographers who were on the staff of Time/Life or National Geographic or connected with Black Star or Magnum.

    With little to go on I stated to edit, scan, process, keyword and upload the images to my web site. There are about 500,000 B&W negatives and color transparencies. I might take a while to trim the file. There are also 1000+ silver gelatin prints I printed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s that were licensed by a NY photo agency and returned to me in the 1990s. Those prints will be marketed separately.

    The negatives and transparencies are worthless in their present form. Digitizing them is the only way to make them valuable. If there is anyone else out there who have any good ideas about finding a home for their files, it would be nice to know about them.

  11. Steve Giardini Says:

    I recently retired and have decided to make a go of landscape photography. Needless to say in just a years time I have accumulate thousands of images. To help my family deal with my eventual demise I am very selective about what I save and what I know to be images that will never “make the grade” by my standards. I even schedule time monthly to purge the dead weight. Even though that still leaves many images it does eliminate the need for those who survive me to sort through hundreds of “bad shots”. Moreover I am diligent about documenting logins and passwords and (as meticulously as I know how) have created and keep current an easy to follow digital filing system. I don’t intended to “pop off” any time soon but the experience you relate is a good example of reasons to have a will and a plan for what to do with all the images.

    Thanks for stimulating the thought process.

  12. Wanda Krack Says:

    What a thought-provoking article. I applaud your work for your friend’s wife. I, too have wondered how to deal with this issue, and plan to go through all my images, make digital files of just my best images, (on two hard drives), and leave them for whichever child/children would like to have them. I have considered prints, but realize that the pictures each child likes may not be the ones I would print, and so I’m hoping to have time to keep two separate external hard-drives for just the special files. Now…………I do hope I’ll have the time for this before changing realities!

  13. Greg Russell Says:

    This is definitely a thought-provoking subject, Gary. It’s crossed my mind a few times, but hasn’t stayed long. However, as I look around at the boxes of slides, DVDs filled with images, and hard drives, I would hope that my photos would help give my family some memory of who I was. I would hope too that someone–my son maybe–would find use for my equipment, but who knows. With the exception of close family, my images carry very little value so that’s really all they’d be good for.

    Definitely a thought-provoking piece; good on you for helping your friend’s wife. That’s a very generous thing to do.

  14. Mark Says:

    I have thought about this a few times Gary, and it has me wondering now and then about legacy and such. With no kids, one sibling who I am not very close to – when I’m gone, I think “well – that’s probably it.” Our websites, our blog posts – all get deleted when the bills stop being paid. There is no mass archive, with the exception of our social media public posts – as our Facebook/Twitter/G+ pages probably live on into who knows how long. Of course our prints may still hang on walls, books still remain on shelves, and photos in magazines and other print media. Maybe that goes to show it helps in the end to turn our digital presence into something more tangible.

  15. John Wall Says:

    I’m with Joe on making Blurb books. That way you can give them out for people to enjoy while you’re still around, and the books will probably outlive you. (You can also do a more personal project that might have too little commercial prospects to be published otherwise.) I’ve also wondered whether various non-profit organizations would be happy to get images, assuming the collection is properly keyworded. Anything from nature or biological science non-profits/educational institutions to friends of whatever local park you’ve spent a lot of time in, historical societies, college/university collections, etc.

  16. tom Says:

    I am with Brett Weston……Burn them all

  17. Doug McKinlay Says:

    It’s an interesting question and one I think all professional photographers ponder as the years tick by. Let’s face it, not every transparency, negative or DNG file is worth keeping. Maybe some housekeeping should be part of our routines, but if you all are like me and have tens of thousands of trannies, negs and digital files it all seems a little daunting. At least with digital if you make deleting as you shoot part of your game then a lot of the less than stellar images don’t ever make it to a hard drive. Was it Cartier-Breson who printed limited edition copies of his best images and burned the rest? That sounds like a good option in my opinion. Also, for the sake of families it’s probably best to get what you want done with your collection written into your will. and here I think the help of a good lawyer would come in handy. I haven’t done it yet myself and I know I should, but….Well, that’s my two cents…



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