Sunday, May 15, 2011

And When I'm Gone?

We all, and I mean me and most photographers I know, wonder what will happen to our life's work when we are gone.

What will happen to all our negatives, transparencies, digital files and prints when we are no longer here to care for and preserve and print or publish our images? What, if any value will those images be to anyone but ourselves?

Well, I believe that what we are doing as photographers is important in that we are documenting the times and conditions of the society in which we live. We are creating an important visual document in a very specific place, of a specific point in time in the history of the human condition. That document may not look impressive or important or insightful right now. But twenty-five, thirty, maybe fifty years from now another generation will look at those images and be informed by a unique vision of the past that has become part of the history of their lives. They may find some answers to some haunting questions that would otherwise remain unresolved.

We are seeing examples of this happening today as the work of many dedicated photographers who made their livings as dentists, insurance brokers, nannies and the like, is being discovered by relatives and flea market hunters. Thousands of negatives and prints hidden away in shoe boxes, suitcases, trunks and drawers are being found everyday. And much of this rediscovered work is providing insights and detailed information into some of the forgotten or ignored facets of our cultural and social evolution.

Most recently you may have heard of the rediscovery of the work of Vivian Maier and Frank Larson. Just two names among hundreds if not thousands of photographers who spent a lifetime documenting the places they lived in and traveled to. This is important work. Take a look, what do you see? What do you recognize? What don't you recognize? What's changed? What's the same? That's our society and culture in another time. What we are looking at is the vehicle that carried us to the present day.

As photographers we are aware of this and grateful that such bodies of work have not been lost. We also realize that much has been lost and we need to plan for the safekeeping and preservation of our own work. We understand that today, for us, there is a value to the images we make, but it's often hard to imagine who in the future will see them in the same way. And that's where we make our biggest mistake. Our images won't be seen in the same way we see them today. They will be seen by different eyes in another time, by people with vastly different knowledge than we possess and who will value those images in ways we will never imagine.

What we photograph today is the very foundation of tomorrow. It's what will someday be called history.

Photo: ©2011 David W. Sumner

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