from the eMusings Archive...

Volume 5 • Number 1 • March 2012

Bird Display, LACMNH, 2008

The Art of Photographic Hoarding


The Art of Photographic Hoarding

by Huntington Witherill

While channel surfing recently, I ran across a program focused on hoarding. Now, for those like myself who too often find themselves clueless, hoarding appears to be one of those modern-day afflictions involving a shopping addiction of one sort or another, coupled with an inability to pick-up after one's self. And apparently, it’s a malady that is wide spread enough to be worthy of prime-time television.

Actually, my aim is not to rag on the television industry (it’s such an easy target). I thought I’d instead use the example of hoarding as it applies to my own condition as a photographer. And of course, if you are a photographer yourself, you may well find that you are suffering (to one degree or another) with a similar affliction.

Over the past several months I’ve been going back through a multitude of "artifacts" that, as a photographer, I’ve managed to accumulate over the past 42 years. The intent being to better organize and catalog the thousands of film negatives, hundreds of boxes of silver gelatin prints, scores of boxed proof-sheets, dozens of boxes of pigment ink prints, palettes of books and posters, digital files, catalogs, databases, a cache of obsolete hard-drives, old show announcements, workshop rosters … and lord knows what else… all in an effort to corral this particular hoard into what might legitimately be deemed a reasonably well organized and suitably accessible "archive". And needless to say, the task is proving to be no small undertaking.

Of course, I’ve continued (over the years) to do my best to keep my archive in what I presumed to be a relatively well organized and up-to-date state. Nevertheless, with the advent of computers and the conspicuously statistical nature of modern data-gathering, I now have the ability to instantly track (with often distressing accuracy) the ubiquitous gaps in my overall organizational plan. And I also have to wonder… at what point did I go from being a hoarder, to being an obsessive compulsive? (Oh… that’s right... one pretty much goes with the other, doesn't it?)

Truth be told, I’m discovering that I greatly prefer being a photographer to being a librarian, or an archivist. I find the nature of this kind of spring cleaning exercise to be somewhat less than personally fulfilling. Simply put, I'd rather be producing new photographs.

Nevertheless, the question becomes: Is the act of maintaining and organizing one’s own archive really a necessary part of being a photographer? Unfortunately, to some degree I think the answer to that question is… Yes. As photographers, maintaining reasonable access to the work that we’ve done over the years is an integral part of being a serious photographer. If nothing else, a collector may one day decide to purchase a print made from a specific negative that you produced some 30-40 years ago. What are your chances of selling that print if you can’t find it? And if the negative itself remains uncataloged and buried in a box somewhere (usually labeled: "misc.") how many hours and/or days might you spend rooting it out? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been a big fan of these kinds of scavenger hunts.

Further, what happens to all of this "stuff" once you’ve gone into what Ansel Adams cleverly dubbed: the final rinse? Personally, I think I’ve covered myself (for now, anyway) by doing what so many other photographers have done. I’ve managed to extract a promise from my spouse that she’ll take over management of the archive upon my departure. And I think I’ve covered all possible contingencies by making it clear to my wife (of course, jokingly) that if she pre-deceases me… I’ll kill her! So, she’s also graciously agreed to outlive me.

Kidding aside (and despite the fact that I do continue to work toward a bona-fide strategic plan in the above regard) the ultimate determination as to whether a particular photographer’s archive is even worthy of being maintained after that photographer has succumbed to the inevitable… that is a determination normally left to someone other than the photographer. At the same time, if we as photographers are at all serious about the work we do, I think it is our responsibility to at least attempt to maintain our respective archives in as well organized and reasonably accessible a condition as possible. If nothing else, doing so will greatly increase your chances of having your own work actually survive you (if that’s of concern to you).

With the above in mind, over the past few months I’ve been going back and filling in some gaps by scanning, cataloging, and organizing several hundred older negatives and prints, and cleaning up numerous caches of miscellaneous "this-and-thats" which have accumulated throughout my home and studio over the past four decades – generally doing what I think they refer to as: "putting one’s affairs in order". By the way, this is how I know that I’m decidedly not a hoarder. (Hoarders appear to be uniquely incapable of herding their "stuff" into any form of organized structure.)

I turn 63 in May. Therefore I still consider myself young enough (OK, maybe foolish enough) to believe that I’ve got plenty of time to put my affairs in order. After all, I’ve always considered "middle-age" to be anyone 10-years older than I am. On the other hand, I nearly got hit by a truck while crossing the street the other day. Obviously, there’s no time like the present.

If you are serious about your photography and you’ve not given much thought to what will become of your work after you’ve gone into that final rinse, you might want to consider developing some form of strategic plan. Maybe the whole idea seems just a bit overwhelming, or somehow unimportant, and therefore too easily set aside for another day. Think again. And if you find yourself in need of help or guidance with this issue, I recommend you contact the Foundation for Photographic Preservation (FfPP).

The FfPP’s stated mission includes: preserving the significant work of career photographers, identifying suitable archives for bodies of photographic work, and assisting photographers, their families and their estates in preparing collections for placement. Established in 2006 by my good friend and colleague, Al Weber, the FfPP can be an invaluable resource in helping you plan for that inevitable day when you’ll no longer be able to maintain and promote your own life’s work.

In my own effort to pick-up after myself so as to become a bit better organized, I’m starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like maybe 25 or 30 more scans and I’ll finally be up-to-date. Now… if I could only find the negative that goes with this proof-sheet that I just discovered… underneath my desk!

As photographers, we seem to go to great lengths to insure that our prints possess archival permanence. If you were somehow struck by lightning, tomorrow, have you ever wondered about just how archival your own legacy is likely to be?