There's always a lot of "G.I." (Garbage in) but not nearly enough "G.O." The dirty little secret of how photo detritus builds up like compound interest. Trying to remedy that.

Behind a solid core door with a deadbolt is a secure closet on the south side of my office. I used to keep equipment in there when equipment was "valuable" but now that it's run of the mill it hardly seems worth the effort to lock it up. One stack that has been on the shelves in the secure closet for nearly 22 years is a series of 16 metal slide cases. Each case holds hundreds of 35mm color slides. It was always my intention to go through the images one day and pull the gold out from the dreck but not once in the last two decades have I even opened one of the cases, much less made any real effort to edit down this ponderous pile of transparencies. 

All that changed when my mom passed away and my dad moved to an assisted living facility. My siblings and I ended up being with responsibility for going through the house where my parents lived for 38 years and separating things that could be donated from financial and personal papers that needed shredding or filing, from memorabilia that one or another of the siblings might actually treasure. We've saved nearly all of the snap shots from over the years and my brother has taken on the role of image archiver. The job of clearing out the house is overwhelming because my mom saved just about everything; from New Yorker Magazines as far back as the 1970's to boxes of pens which no longer write. Drawers and drawers of letters (old school social media!) and closets full of clothes which my sister routinely sent to my parents has holiday and birthday gifts. 

My brother-in-law has worked at Barnes and Noble Bookstores for many years and, as a direct result, the house was also filled with thousands of books; mostly on politics and history. After three months of diligent work by my spouse and my brother and his wife we're finally seeing light at the end of a long and cluttered tunnel. A few more weeks and we'll be able to donate everything left over to various charities. 

But this whole exercise has taught me a lot about our habits of acquisition and storage for all the material details of our lives. On a drive back home from one of my episodes of sorting and cleaning I started thinking about the sheer volume of photographic material I've generated over the course of my (happily) long career. In the last fifteen years almost all of the work has been done on digital cameras so much of the recent material exists only on CDs, DVDs and now in cloud storage and on large hard drives. But there are still tens of thousands of negatives, color slides and various format transparencies in little stashes all over my office. I've always had the best of intentions and figured that one day I'd sit down and sort through everything with the idea of ending up with a tidy little pile of stuff equaling about 100 of my best pieces. But, of course, I've never lifted a finger to get started. 

But here's the deal, if I was to drop over dead tomorrow it would fall to Benjamin and Belinda to sort through my stuff and make the same hard determinations that I and my siblings are making about my parent's stuff. It hardly seems fair to make a young person, or your partner of many years, shoulder the burden of trying to decide what possessions of yours you would have wanted preserved and what to throw away. It almost seems like a prison sentence. 

With that in mind I pulled the first box of slides from the closet and started sorting. There were hundreds of images; most of which I barely remember shooting and now realize that if I had really thought they were good I would have been using them and showing them from the moment of their creation. I tossed pretty much anything but photos of close family members. Images of Belinda were safe. There were no images of Ben in the mix because he came after these were all "safely" stored in their boxes and largely forgotten. 

I thought there would be more hesitation on my part to part with all this material. It's images that I took at parades in San Antonio, parks in Mexico city and endless urban landscapes. Most of it is the kind of horribly bland work we used to create in our early years before our vision started to narrow down and become more selective. After I went through the first box I started on the second and then stacked the third and fourth boxes next to my desk in readiness for their execution. 

Over the past few weeks I've tossed nearly 150 CD's that contained client work from the early days of digital. Most were files of headshots of people who might be retired but who most certainly no longer work for the start-ups that hired me and then evaporated into the industrial afterlife where bad ideas reside. If the contracting company no longer exists then there is no obligation of any kind to hang on to old work. Out it went. 

My family's goal is to have the parent's house cleaned out and placed onto the market by the end of May. This goal setting led me to set my own personal goal of having all the old materials I've unconsciously let pile up here in the studio sorted and tossed by the end of the Summer. Reducing the clutter is already helping me be more economical in my image creation. And more vicious in my editing. But mostly I see my newfound vigor for tossing old work (and older paperwork) as a gift to my son and my wife. The more stuff I dispose of the less of their lives they will spend digging through it all and grappling with the guilt and uncertainty of what to keep and what to throw. 

Fortunately we're not packrats in the house. We don't bring new stuff in unless we get rid of old stuff. If only I'd used the same rules in the studio.....

Friday. A good day to take out the trash.

If you want to save stuff for the kids try CDs, bonds or stocks, they'll appreciate them
more than a framed print of an anonymous space in downtown San Antonio.


John Krumm said...

I did the same thing a couple months ago with a huge pile of prints going back many decades. Out went pretty much every landscape photo. Out went photos of unrecognizable people. Out went many, but not all, cat photos. Now the pile is less huge. I'll probably do another weeding in a few years, and a few years after that I'll take most of the best and put them in a box and give them to my daughter.

Unknown said...

Its exactly the hum-drum images of cityscapes that have value. Destroy them and they'll be lost with no way to retrieve them. The value isn't to you - it's to some researcher. Give the slides away - perhaps to a university. Provide some documentation, however minimal. That information then won't be lost.

Mike Rosiak said...

In Sweden, they have döstädning - death cleaning. IOW, getting rid of your accumulated crap so that your family doesn't have to.

It's the right thing to do. When my wife's Mom died, we made several trips to Dallas (from Pennsylvania) to handle all of her stuff (50 pairs of slacks!?), after which we vowed not to do that to our family.

That's something both my wife and I are engaged in now, after some interior remodeling threw our respective work spaces into chaos. Her trash cans look like the ones in your pictures. Me, I have just 6 of those metal slide boxes. I want to get it down to zero, with any keepers in those 8.5 x 11 plastic three-ring-binder holders, so I can scan and make a contact sheet of sorts. If I don't get all my crap eliminated by the unknown D-day, everyone has instructions to just pull up a dumpster and toss away.

Keep at it. Your loved ones will thank you.

Dave Jenkins said...

I've been working on my 100 best photos for some time now, but am only about halfway there. Since I shot film for 35 years and have only been digital for 15 years, most of my best work is on slides. So I have a lot of scanning to do.

The vast majority of my commercial work was tossed several years ago. The documentary work from overseas will probably be given to the agencies that originally commissioned it.

Ray said...

And when I die my kids will just reformat my hard drive and recycle the computer. Every single digital photo I save is simply for my very own viewing pleasure and when I'm gone the photos will be gone too.

Anonymous said...

On the same theme, is there a digital equivalent? What happens to the images from the business (& the cloud) when you call it quits - what happens to the blog when you ‘hang up the keyboard’, or even log out of life?
My dad scanned photos of family from 1800s & 1900s, wrote up a few pages in a word docs about who’s who, and gave CDs to the family. I really should add the next layer or two of generations to keep it going.
Not THAT Ross Cameron

Peter said...

My mother too was something of a hoarder: when she went (following my Dad by a couple of years) I had to empty out an amazing 11 chests of drawers, 5 wardrobes and several suitcases full of clothes, plus lots of other stuff. Some of it I felt guilty about throwing out, like the photo albums I couldn't find room for (although I did remove the best pictures, and I was happy to take an oil painting of the family, that my Dad had commissioned when I was 14, that I loathed, and toss it into the dumpster).

My parents met just after WW2 and lived in a place (Britain) and in a time where shelter, and food were hard to find, along with everything else. I wonder if that played a role in the reluctance to part with things. My own daughters have never known a day when food was scarce, and seem more interested in 'doing' than 'owning'.
Peter Wright

Shmeeko said...

Thank you for this post. Not everyone is a hoarder in the same way or degree, but each of us is currently holding on to things that will be meaningless (even to us) very soon. My sister and I faced a similar challenge when emptying our parents' house after they passed away.

Someday, my own child will have to deal with all the garbage that my wife and I can't seem to toss.
I fear that the photos may be among the least valuable to her. Every time I look at (my parents') old photos of family members I don't recognize, I try to imagine my daughter combing through the multiple hard drives of my commercial photos....actually she'll probably just toss them without checking to see what's on them...and the world will still go on without seeing those images.
That's the truth.

David said...

Funny, the contrast. I don't like portraits. Not the paintings I look at in the art galleries. Instead, I like landscapes, flowers and macro with full spectrum, uv ir thrown in. I would bin all the portraits, except family and keep all the timeless landscapes.

tOM said...

I hate to throw stuff away, but donating.......?
Why not ask your local library or city archives if they are interested?