Musings on Photography

The Work that Remains

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on May 14, 2007


This past weekend, our internet connection went down.  While this is not privation on a par with starvation or solitary confinement, we use our access to the internet pretty heavily.  So, when we’re cut off, there’s a certain amount of lifestyle rearrangement that goes on.

One of those rearrangements was for me to actually clean the table beneath the ‘work wall’ where I hang work prints I want to look at for a while.  I like having prints where I see them over and over.  It’s part of how I get the prints the way I want them.

But this table – oy.  The table is where I drop the work prints when I take them down.  The entire table top was a record of my work for the past 18 months – work prints that failed, photographs that failed, the ‘final’ work prints that I used to edit the most recent show. These prints, many of them essentially indistinguishable from my final prints, but some of them definitely works in progress, were all jumbled together in one big pile, as wide and long as the tabletop and about two inches deep.  Yes, I make a LOT of prints.

So to clean up the table, here’s what I did.  I tore up each and every print, and then I filled two big trash bags with the torn up prints.  And now the bags (and the torn up prints) are in the dumpster.  And from now on, instead of taking work prints off the wall and setting them on the table, I’m going to just tear them up and throw them out.

Brett Weston destroyed all his negatives when he turned 80, so that no one could print from them after his death.  Paul Caponigro has mentioned that he might do something similar. In some sense, my motivation here is the same as Weston’s and Caponigro’s – I want some control over what remains. 

Early this year, I made a ‘reference’ set of prints – the size I wanted, the paper I wanted, each print just as I wanted – for essentially ALL of the photographs I really liked that I made in 2006.  I took those prints, and put them in an archival box, and I labeled the box “2006”, and it’s now sitting on a shelf.  I’m not so worried that someone will feel the urge to reinterpret my work by reprinting it.  But if someone wants to judge my work, I want them judging it based on the work as I wanted it, and not a huge pile of prints that show how I didn’t want it.  Until I started this practice, if someone wanted to judge my work, they’d have had to wade through box after box of jumbled up prints, sorting out the nasty work prints from the good keepers.  Just the thought of it gives me the yips.

So now, in addition to the ‘2006’ box, I have a ‘2007’ box.  And I’m putting reference prints in the box, and I’m trying to not hang on to work prints, but to just destroy them right away.  Probably, when I’m gone, I’ll have done little more than made it simple for my heirs to throw out every photograph I’ve made – just a short pile of boxes to toss instead of many big random piles.  But if someone happens to peek inside first, then they’ll judge my work based on the best I could do, and not on a random collection of work prints.

5 Responses

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  1. timatherton said, on May 14, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    aww man – part of the fun and excitement of dealing with photo collections is going through all the boxes and files and folder of notes, work prints, unknown negatives and goodness knows what else.

    As well, photographers are invariably the worst editors of their work.

    If anyone wants to reprint my work or do their PhD on it in the future, I want them to have to wade through all the stuff that went into making it – the failures and successes, the stuff I didn’t think worked, the notes written on the back of gas station receipts.

    not that anyone would of course..

  2. Damok Tieg said, on May 14, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    I was thinking along similar lines, sort of stacking the deck a bit should someone take it upon themselves to browse my prints without my input. I do have a tough time throwing them away, however.

  3. chuck kimmerle said, on May 14, 2007 at 8:19 pm

    When I made the switch from large format to digital (it was a few years in between), I found that my style had changed dramatically. So, when I pulled apart the darkroom to make room for the computer desk, I cut up every one of my 4×5 negs. I cannot explain why, but I had absolutely no desire to keep them as the subject matter no longer meant anything to me. Hard to explain, even to myself. Never regretted it, though, as my current work is at a much higher and more meaningful level.

    As for work prints, I keep them neatly stacked up in a pile approaching 6″ deep with at least three different sizes of paper. Some have notes, most don’t. I never look at them. This topic might just be the reality check I need. Time to clean.

  4. Mike said, on May 15, 2007 at 10:48 am

    We’re supposed to mature as we grow older (that’s what Mom said and we all know how far we get arguing with Mom!) If that’s true then one would expect that, over time, we would discover that what we once liked (perhaps a great deal,) we now no longer care for. I think that it takes a lot of courage to destroy “early work” that you are no longer satisfied with, and personally I believe that not enough of us do that. I know that I don’t (just a moral coward, I suppose!)

    One of my questions with regard to the change in photography from film to digital is whether or not one’s “early work” can survive. With film (and prints,) one has to make a conscious effort to get rid of it. You have to actually pick up that box and throw it in the trash. With digital, so few photographs are actually printed and the lifetime of digital storage so limited that the situation is reversed: one has to make a conscious effort to retain the old stuff. Sure, while the lifetime of digital storage is up for debate (not starting that here!) it is almost certainly shorter — in some cases *much* shorter! — than a properly processed and washed print.

    All those photos from five years ago — are you going to make the effort to copy them to a new DVD before the old CD starts to deteriorate? A decade from now, are you going to go back to your work from the year 2000 and back it up to whatever storage medium is then current? Or are you going to let it fade away, and (perhaps) be glad that your “early work” is doomed to oblivion?

    I’m not trying to make a judgement here, by the way: I’m just curious whether you think you’ll be incented to keep up the storage refresh cycle for the indefinite future, and whether you think it matters.


  5. […] the comments on this post, Mike writes:  One of my questions with regard to the change in photography from film to digital […]

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