I’m Not Dead Yet! by Virginia Bly Johnson

My good friend Al Weber has been rescuing photographs for many years. If you’ve hung out with Al, you may be familiar with the story of Steve Crouch. The life work of this preeminent west coast photographer was literally in a pickup truck headed for the dump when Al saved it from destruction. After Steve’s death, the family was cleaning out the darkroom and had no idea that anyone would be interested in all that “junk.” If Al had hesitated and arrived a few minutes too late, none of Steve’s impressive black and white and color work would have survived.

Al also saved Oliver Gagliani’s work. In failing health and not sure what to do with his photographs, Oliver had started tossing them into the fireplace when he received Al’s call. Al was instrumental in placing the Crouch and Gagliani archives with the McHenry Library Special Collections unit at UC Santa Cruz. He has also worked with a number of other photographers to help them make decisions that will ensure that their photographic work is around for the enjoyment and education of future generations.

Al is passionate in his belief that the significant work of many unknown and unsung photographers who have documented the culture, landscape and history of their place and time deserve to be preserved. While he recognizes that it’s not possible for one institution to accept all of this work and that it may not be possible to find a home for every collection, in 2006 Al and a small group of friends with similar concerns created the Foundation for Photographic Preservation (FfPP), a California non-profit corporation.

FfPP’s goals are to preserve the significant work of career photographers, identify suitable archives for placement of bodies of photographic work, and assist photographers, their families and their estates in preparing collections for placement.

“Yes,” you might say, “but I’m not dead yet!” Even though all of us will die someday, it’s not a topic we like to address. But no matter what our age, it’s never too early to think about and create a plan for what we would like done with our lifetime body of work if one fine day the cruise boat sinks or the Mack truck doesn’t see our little red sports car.

With all the details that have to be dealt with in the aftermath of a timely or untimely death, you can’t blame your loved ones for not being able to cope with all that “junk.” After all, you are your own best judge of your photographs. While you are still around, take a little time to organize them and throw away your less than best efforts. You need to talk to your family now and let them know what your wishes are. Let them know about the possibilities that might exist for your work. Put it in writing so there’s no question about what to do with it after you’re gone.

You might also talk with your financial advisor about creating an endowment to help support preservation of your archive. Although universities, museums, historical societies or other institutions might have interest in your photographs, it’s very expensive to catalog and house this material. With ongoing budget constraints it may be difficult for them to acquire new material without assistance.

Our creative work consumes a great deal of our time, energy and other resources during our lifetimes. Yet, it’s hard for our friends or our families to understand just what it is that drives us to create. Although they might like certain of our images and respect how important it has been for us to make them, they probably have no inkling of the overall significance of our archive as documentation, art or history. They most likely would not have a clue as to whether it should be preserved or how to go about preserving it.

That’s where FfPP can be of service. FfPP can educate photographers and/or their heirs and suggest creative solutions about what to do with the “junk” in the darkroom. FfPP can also serve as an intermediary between archives and donors, an advocate for the body of work.