Every artist seems to accrue stuff over time that they don't really want anymore but can't seem to part with. I have an office space that's about five hundred square feet. It always feels full of stuff. And by extension my brain seems to always have a subroutine running to keep track, in a general way, of where most of the stuff resides. But here's the deal: There's a lot of stuff I just don't want to keep track of anymore. And when it comes to film and files I feel even more constrained by the two extremes; purging everything or preserving stuff for posterity.
Posterity is all about ego. Purging is all about compulsion. Is there some healthy middle ground?
I wouldn't know, I'm not a mental health care professional. But I do know this; up until last week there were boxes full of slides I hadn't looked through since I bought this space 16 years ago and moved all the stuff in. That's all changed. I pulled a big garbage can in from the side of the house and started by pulling out the first bankers box filled with the polyester sleeves that protect, in groups of 20, decades of color slides. On Sunday I filled half a 50 gallon container with slides that I came to realize that I'll never need or want to touch again. A lot of nothing special.
Today we purged another twenty or thirty pounds of non-virtual imaging. But in the role of a stalwart steward of my own version of culture, I held up each sleeve of slides in front of a lightbox and took a quick look at the little rectangles. I pulled out all the images of my spouse and put them into a new set of sleeves. Ditto with any image of Ben or my direct family members. Chalk that up to nostalgia. Family guy. Family history custodian.
The ones that got chunked are client files, street shots that never worked out. Shots of the Eiffel Tower and all sorts of monuments that are, frankly, better as postcards that someone else has shot. As each box gets emptied it gets recycled and my office space gets another three or four cubic feet of space that I'm dedicated to not filling up.
I have a couple more days of editing and purging in order to bring down the clutter to a manageable amount. Then I'm going through shelf after shelf of CDs and DVDs. So many headshots of people from the last 12 years. People who worked for companies that no longer exist. Probably a fair number of people who no longer physically exist. And mostly they are images that will never be printed or shared again.
But the fun part of all this (besides the self delivered gift of increasing space and less clutter) is finding little gems that pepper the archival sheets. The one above is a color copy slide of a hand colored print of Renee Zellweger. We'd been out shooting on the railroad tracks on the east side of town. We started the day goofing around and shooting negatives that we earmarked for an earlier version of Hipstergram filters that was called, cross processing. We actually shot the film in a certain way and then processed it in the wrong kind of developer. By the time we got to this image I was bored with the cross processing experiment and more interested in shooting some black and white.
One of my friends asked me what might be behind this sudden desire to get rid of stuff. I thought for a long time about this and I think I know. I just turned 57 and I remember talking to an older photographer many years ago. He was in the process of winnowing down his collection of images as well. He divided his rationalization of the initiative into two parts. In the first place not all of the images I've shot are great. Not good. Not even mediocre. If I die before I trash them they become part of my legacy as a photographer. That would be embarrassing. Very embarrassing. I'd love to distill all the stuff I've shot down to about 100 nice images. That's a manageable project and, while I doubt anyone but a handful of friends and family will remember the work I've done a week after my website goes dark and my blog runs dry, it still assuages my ego and insinuates that I am leaving something behind.
But in a more honest assessment I don't think there are more than 100 great images in the collection and having to make my kid and my spouse go through 200,000 images in order to find the few is cruel and preventable. Left with an unmanageable collection they would be trapped with trying to decide what I would have wanted to do with all this stuff and the (smarter and better) desire to get on with their own lives.
Maybe we have a moral responsibility to clean up after our selves and create a bit of order going forward. At least that's my rational.
If you scratch a little deeper I think I'm just trying to make space for a whole new wave....