Reflections from the Trenches by Reverdy Johnson

Here are some of the lessons learned in the course of working with photographers and their estates for the placement of their archives over the past eight years.

  • The number of archives seeking homes greatly exceeds the available supply of repositories.
  • If the photographer did not create a market for his or her work during the photographer’s life, it is unrealistic to assume that someone else will be able to create that market after the photographer’s death.
  • Unless the photographer has a marquee name, it may be difficult to find a single recipient for the archive.  Rather than placing the archive because of the photographer’s name and reputation, placement may be easier based on the subject matter of the work itself.  Multiple placements may be in order and there may be some portions of the archive that do not find a home.  Photographs of local interest may belong in a local museum or library.  Other work may be suitable for a corporate collection or to be held by an educational institution to which the photographer had some ties.  The photographer may also find that self-publishing his or her best work is an acceptable means of preservation.
  • Relatively few institutions are interested in the entire body of a photographer’s work beyond the finished and matted prints.  Negatives, work prints, lab and exposure records, writings, etc., take up space, are often difficult to organize and catalog, and may be of interest only to graduate students doing research work.  Notable exceptions that do want the “whole photographer” are the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the Perkins Library and Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University in Durham, NC.  Duke’s primary focus is on photojournalism and documentary photography; CCP in Tucson encompasses the full spectrum of photographic work.
  • It is infrequent that a photographer’s archives will have monetary value, and it is certainly not unknown for an institution to require some endowment from the photographer or the photographer’s family to underwrite the costs of care, custody and conservation of the archives.  I think of one particular instance in which a university with major photographic collections agreed to purchase the work of a noted photographer from his family some years after his death.  The purchase price was in seven figures, but payment was conditioned upon the university’s success in raising funds for that purpose from outside contributions, along with promotional assistance in the fund-raising from the family.
  • More often than not, photographers give inadequate thought before their death to the organization of their work and its placement.  This is unfortunate, for it requires a major time commitment for a third party to bring order out of the chaos left in the studio, darkroom or computer.  Part of each photographer’s work processes should include a level of organization of negatives, prints and computer files that will be comprehensible and usable by those who succeed to responsibility for the archives. To the extent images or indexes are on the photographer’s computer, passwords for access always need to be available.
  • If a charitable institution is the recipient of an archive, or if the photographer’s estate is looking to the availability of a charitable deduction, the archive will have to be appraised.  The cost and time of an appraisal needs to be factored into the placement process.  From my experience, the appraiser should be truly independent but answerable to the person paying the bill.
  • It is an error on the part of a photographer to develop an estate plan that presupposes the photographer’s legacy will be able to provide for the support of his or her heirs.
  • The prospect of sudden wealth from a photographic inheritance, unrealistic as that prospect may be, is almost guaranteed to bring out the worst in the photographer’s heirs and significantly impair the ability to make a beneficial disposition of the photographer’s archives.

Digital photography has revolutionized the way in which we think and work.  The creative process has expanded in ways incomprehensible not all that many years ago.

The digitizing of photography is an archivist’s dream.  Space is conserved, organization is faster and easier and the breadth of sharing and distribution is truly amazing.  Indeed, some institutions have indicated that they are only interested in receiving digitized material, and that negatives and prints are no longer items of interest.  There are a number of troubling downsides to this, including the impermanence of digital media and technology.

John Sexton’s November 2014 Newsletter includes a thought-provoking article on the subject by Rob Pike, who is a well-qualified commentator.  Rob’s career spans years working for Bell Laboratories in its Computing Sciences Research Center on the systems that are the foundation of the Internet, to his current position as a Distinguished Engineer at Google.  Rob is also a gifted photographer. With the kind permission of Rob and John, here is a relevant excerpt from the article.

We live in what has been named a Digital Dark Age. Because digital technology evolves so fast, we are rapidly losing the ability to understand yesterday’s media. As file formats change, software becomes obsolete, and hardware becomes outmoded, old digital files become unreadable and unrecoverable. . . . [D]igital information requires maintenance. It’s not sufficient to make backups; the backups also need to be maintained, upgraded, transferred, and curated. Without conscientious care, the data of today will be lost forever in a few years. Even with care, it’s possible through software or hardware changes to lose access forever. That shoebox of old backup CDs will be unreadable soon.

For the full article, please follow the link to John’s website (http://www.johnsexton.com/newsletter11-2014.html) and to Rob’s blog (http://commandcenter.blogspot.com/2014/08/prints.html). It is timely, relevant and should be required reading for all fine art photographers and those involved in photographic preservation.  The issue is of great importance to the preservation of one’s life work as a photographer, for  unless the existence and accessibility of digital information is itself preserved, which may or may not occur, the physical print remains the bedrock of the photographer’s archive.