Musings on Photography

On deleting

Posted in art is a verb, file storage, process by Paul Butzi on January 16, 2007

 

There was quite a long discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of deleting ‘bad’ images in camera, versus deleting them after download when you’ve got different tools to view the images, over on The Online Photographer (see this post, this post, this post, this post).

All that discussion is well and good.  The technical issues surrounding bugs in filesystems, the properties of flash memory, etc. are all well taken.  The issue of not being able to judge images properly on a teeny, non-color-corrected display are well articulated and are important, surely.  The improving marginal capacity/price of available storage cards does, surely, reduce the pressure for in camera deletion.

But, as Arlo Guthrie once put it, “…that’s not what I came to tell you about.”  I’m not here to argue about the merits of in camera deletion versus on computer deletion.  I’m here to argue that, as artists, we might all want to consider Butzi’s Rule of Deletion – “Don’t delete anything.  Ever.”

It’s easy to make this argument – just start from Josh Hawkin’s premise as expressed in his post on TOP – it’s darn hard to know, in advance, which images will be significant.  There’s not just Josh’s story about his image being a winner, there’s the story of the photographer who photographed the Queen of England during a parade, and got what he thought was just boring dross.  That is, until it was revealed that an assassination attempt had been made, and the photographer reviewed his film, and there, in the middle, found one frame with a hand encroaching into the frame holding a pistol leveled at the Queen on horseback.

Easy, too, to make the argument that if we delete stuff, even prosaic and quotidian stuff, we’re deleting stuff that historians will find fascinating and important.

And, of course, with the price of storage continuing the free fall that it’s been doing for the past decade (or more), it’s easy to argue that keeping everything is cheap.

But those aren’t the persuasive argument.  The persuasive argument is this: as artists, I think we get rid of our trail of mistakes at peril.  Those ‘losers’, ‘also rans’, and ‘not quite winners’ represent the path of our searching for something significant.  Often, our process consists of dabbling around the edges of something unconsciously, a sort of spiritual testing of the waters.  And only by going back and looking at our ‘loser’, ‘also ran’, ‘not quite winner’, and, most importantly, our ‘What in the name of everything that is sacred could I possibly have been thinking when I opened the shutter on this scene’ photos can we possibly discover what our unconsious process has been busily working away at.

For me, and I believe for a lot of photographers, photography is a way of “Effing the ineffable”.  We’re after something, and not only is it hard to express it in words, it might be impossible.  It’s something that, almost by definition, doesn’t fit into our existing mental model of how the world is put together.  We don’t learn new things by performing experiments where we know the outcome, we learn new things by performing experiments where we DON’T know the outcome.    We advance as photographic artists not by only opening the shutter when we know, in advance, that result is going to be a world class, blow the viewer right out of his sneakers, stupendous winner of a photograph.  We advance when we set up the camera thinking “I wonder what would happen if…” and then proceed to open the shutter knowing full well that the odds are good that the photo will be no damn good at all but that we’ll have learned something in the process.

And, I argue, one of the most valuable things we can do is to periodically go back, and go over our backlog of ‘not winners’ and ask ourselves some questions.  Not just questions like “Are these sharp enough?  Would using a tripod improve the sharpness of my photos” (which are fine, as far as they go) but also questions like “Why do I seem to have so many photographs of people’s shoes?  What’s going on, there?” or “Gee, now that I’ve started making the photograph that first attracted my attention, and then turning 180 degrees and making another, why do I find the ‘backward glance’ photos so compelling?  Isn’t that interesting?”

There are trends in our work, running back weeks and months and years, waiting patiently for us to come back and discover them.  But the trends are often encoded in the stream of ‘not winners’ that every photographer makes, and if we delete them, we can’t go back and find those trends.

David Bayles and Ted Orland put it well when they said “The function of 99% of the art we make is to enable us to make the 1% which soars.”  Those ‘not winners’ you’re tempted to delete – they’re not mistakes, they’re the groundwork for what is coming next.  If you don’t know what’s coming next, go back and look at those ‘not winners’ and try to find the patterns and trends that point the way.  That’s what they’re for.  They have a purpose, and the fact that the purpose isn’t “fire up photoshop, make a beautiful print of this image, frame it, and get it hung in the museum” doesn’t mean that purpose is any less important.

Don’t delete anything.  Ever.

9 Responses

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  1. Paul said, on January 16, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    Good points. I’d like to add another point for the case of not deleting. Mood. I find that sometimes if I’m of a particular mood, sad, happy, tired, frustrated, ect., then my perception of whether or not a shot works is altered.

    If I save the images, come back some days, or perhaps months later, then there might be some winners in there that I couldn’t ‘see’ before. Storage is pretty cheap and often I’ll get ideas for better shots from some of the duff shots.

  2. Gordon McGregor said, on January 16, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    I just delete the technically bad. I do a first pass and through away the things that aren’t really pictures as such – checking exposure, test shots, out of focus by mistake. Then I just make selects from what’s left and keep pretty much everything after that.

    What I’ve been finding fascinating and wish I could see more of, is contact sheets of recognised ‘greats’ like Arnold Newmann. Seeing how he works a subject and approaches the final ‘known’ image.

    I wish I could see those contact sheets of many photographers – what went before, what went after, where the successful image lay in the stream.

    You can see the situation building to the final shot – sometimes it collapses before it gets there, but it is enjoyable and instructional seeing where it comes from in the flow.

  3. Ed Richards said, on January 16, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    I am in the Jay Maisel, Fred Picker, throw the crap away school. I think the biggest threat to art as process and the process of art is wallowing in not quite good enough images. Life being a zero sum game, this wallowing is always at the expense of new images and new art. So sure, you might learn something the 27th time through the slush file, but do you learn something that is worth what you missed by spending time on the 27th visit?

    Paul, you once pointed out how much room there is improve images in Photoshop – you could spend some of that spare time on your hands making your soaring images soar higher, or at least getting some promising turkeys off the ground.

    The slush pile was deadly during the analog days because it really ate up darkroom time. It is deadly in the digital age because it is endless. Nothing forces intellectual disciple when all you have to do is buy another NAS device.

    My challenge is this: I think most photographic art would be stronger if the photographer could never look back. If you had to keep shooting to have any art at all, and you had to start over every day with nothing but your memories. Like shooting Poloriods but not rubbing on the fixers so they would keep fading away. Then you could never be complacent and you would always be involved in the process. I think photography has an almost unique trap among the visual arts by having this overhang of not very good work tempting one to keep messing with it. You should spend time thinking about painters and how they work, and what we can learn from them. Most painters have to keep moving on, only a few really crazy ones keep a lot of old canvases around and keep tinkering with them.

  4. Erik DeBill said, on January 17, 2007 at 8:43 am

    I think there’s a happy medium. I’ll happily throw away a negative where fingers got in the way of the lens or delete a file with visible camera shake. I’ll delete the grossly bad right from the camera if I need the space for some reason.

    Shooting digital is only free if you don’t store the resulting images long term. Once you start doing that, with a reliable backup regime, every picture costs. I’d rather throw away the mechanically bad (as opposed to unsuccessful concepts) to make room for more interesting failures. There really isn’t anything artistic to learn from what you get when something presses on the shutter release while you’re carrying the camera in a backpack, or you’re a little too slow and that swallow has already flown out of frame. Those shots just slow down your image browser and keep you from getting to the more interesting ones anyway.

  5. Chantal said, on January 17, 2007 at 9:52 am

    I’m a pack-rat, so throwing anything away is a difficult task….and I’m going to agree with you here, Paul.

    Last year, I shot all film, so recently I’ve been going through all of my old prints and negatives—mostly all a pile of junk. But I did notice the patterns, my habits of tightly cropping frames, my propensity for shooting wide open, my attraction to softly focused scenes. And I even found a few gems. My eye has grown and changed a bit over the past year, and certain images that at first I thought were garbage, now suddenly stand out as something quite interesting.

    Even though 99.9% of those old images will never see the light of day, other than my occasional glance, it helps me to understand my own vision, where I am going, understanding direction.

    In the old days when everyone was shooting film, contact sheets were the norm, you couldn’t select which negatives to keep, chopping up your negatives were unheard of. Digital photography shouldn’t be any different.

    This year I will be shooting digital, probably much more than film. And regardless of file systems and all that other stuff, I plan to keep it all. It’s my belief that you can’t really understand where you are going until you reflect on where you’ve been.

  6. photomusings said, on January 17, 2007 at 10:19 am

    My challenge is this: I think most photographic art would be stronger if the photographer could never look back. If you had to keep shooting to have any art at all, and you had to start over every day with nothing but your memories. Like shooting Poloriods but not rubbing on the fixers so they would keep fading away. Then you could never be complacent and you would always be involved in the process. I think photography has an almost unique trap among the visual arts by having this overhang of not very good work tempting one to keep messing with it. You should spend time thinking about painters and how they work, and what we can learn from them. Most painters have to keep moving on, only a few really crazy ones keep a lot of old canvases around and keep tinkering with them.

    So, Ed – did you get up this morning and take up your own challenge by deleting all your digital images and by burning all the negatives and prints you’ve made so far in your life?

    If not, why not?

  7. Ed Richards said, on January 17, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    > So, Ed – did you get up this morning and take up your own challenge by deleting all your digital images and by burning all the negatives and prints you’ve made so far in your life?

    1) I am not into the art as process model.

    2) I have a lot of images that have nothing to do with art – just documentation of family events, etc.

    3) I do weed out the digital images pretty completely, with the exception of 2).

    4) I throw away all of the technically flawed film negatives. I file and scan the rest, and sort the scans. I discard the scans that are not keepers as I work through them. I do not go back and discard the negatives because I put info on their folders that is a valuable record of shooting. I do not go back and resort them and review them, so they do not cost me time.

    5) Since I do art as artifact, rather than process, I do keep good negatives and work on them to make them into ever better prints. These are gradually retired until I have a core of keepers.

    My concern with the packrat school has the same roots as my opposition to the magic bullet school that is always looking for new tweaks and films, and cannot even consider that a print could be any good unless scanned at a zillion DPI mounted in holy water from the grail itself. The best photography comes from taking pictures, and we have only a limited amount of time to do that. Any time spent on packratting reviews or magic bullet chasing is at the expense of shooting and printing. Human nature being what it is, we must be vigilant to limit the temptations to obsessive behavior that detracts from shooting.

  8. Al Kaplan said, on January 21, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    I’m the “keep everything” school. All my stuff, going back to 1961, is on film. I have neatly numbered negative strips with matching numbered contact sheets. I’ve recently sold pictures of a young unknown female attorney, Janet Reno, before she left private practice to become States Attorney for Dade County, Florida. I have photos of a young Bob Dylan, and a raft of others early in their careers. Of course when I shot them who could know that they’d become famous, become icons?

  9. […] had reasserted itself. I’ve articulated in the past what I think are persuasive reasons for never deleting anything, ever. Storage is cheap. You never know what the value of something is until much later. And so on, and […]


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