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Wednesday, 23 February 2011


"It didn't have to be portfolio quality—it just had to be something I enjoyed looking at."

Maybe scanning and printing services are appropriate in this case?


Great essay to put it all in perspective, thanks Ctein. It does make me wonder what is happening ,if anything ,to the 2000? rolls of unexposed film of Garry Winogrand. Will we ever see them? Also his books are mostly out of print, will they ever be republished? I did a search on the net and found no information.

It was more like 9,000 rolls, and it was all developed and proofed under John Szarkowski's direction (I don't actually know precisely how he was involved, just that he was) using a grant from Springs Industries, a major donor of the MoMA photo department at the time. Szarkowski used, I think, 25 pictures from that work in "Figments from the Real World" and from the looks of those 25 pictures, not seeing any of the rest isn't going to be much of a loss to anybody. Apparently Winogrand had essentially gone on autopilot in the evening of his life, photographing compulsively but not productively.


Too many pixels, too little time.

It depends on how old you are whether you're going to die. I distinctly remember that when I was 27, I wasn't going to die. Now that I'm turning 54, I'm beginning to see it as more of a possibility.


"The death rate remains the same--one per person."

(I find lots of people using the quote, but nothing that looks like a trustworthy source in a quick search. It's very much not original with me, anyway.)

There never was a point when I really thought I wasn't going to die. There have been times when I hoped, in a science-fictional sort of way, that my generation might be the first to include effective immortals (though, being a science fiction fan, I can tell you a lot about the ways that can go wrong).

But yeah, I think about it in a more personal and immediate way. People about my age (that I know, I mean; not just people somewhere in the population) have died unexpectedly of natural causes. People younger than me are having strokes.

(Mike, why does your site turn the HTML entity mdash (properly bracketed by ampersand and semi-colon) into several characters of Unicode that I don't have fonts for on my computer?)

Just last night I started another backup of my entire digital archive of photographs, which currently totals about 25,000 files and just under 700 gigabytes. With my current 'sneakernet' backup system of USB external hard drives this takes about 30 hours per complete copy. Cheap in dollars, not so much in time, but losing a worthy image forever is so excruciating that I'm pretty compulsive about it.

But I've only printed at most 5% of those images, and there are plenty of really good ones (well, at least I think they're good) that I've never subjected to sufficient study and Photoshop time to determine their real potential. The time and energy required to evaluate, edit, optimize and print my images has paradoxically led me to make fewer digital exposures per outing than I did when shooting transparencies, even allowing for files I plan to stitch into panos or HDR images.

I periodically dip into older files and collections, and invariably I'm delighted by photographs that didn't really appeal to me 5 or 10 or 15 years ago when I first looked at them. And my steadily improving printing skills result in far better prints than I made from the same files in the past. And yet my newer photographs are generally better quality files with more detail and improved color accuracy....

So many images, so little time...

You wrote "That doesn't mean that nothing got printed until ten-plus years later. Lots of stuff did, especially stuff that I considered so fine that it went to dye transfer almost immediately. But a lot of other portfolio-worthy photos didn't, and there are entire photo trips from which I made almost no prints of any sort."

We've probably all had the experience of rediscovering an image later that we passed on first look. But I think first impressions are mostly accurate, so you have probably already printed the vast majority of your "good" stuff. Relax. The act of shooting (i.e. discovery) is exhilarating and reason enough for the love of photography.

Thanks. That puts a different perspective on my backlog. In the past I've spent a lot of time photoshopping and then not printing. I've got 3 years worth of photos that haven't been looked at. I have a scanner in need of repair and I've been putting off shooting more film until it's fixed.

I should just go out and shoot, and enjoy my time with the camera.

After 4 decades with film and darkroom experience, I have only 2 years with digital. The transition was a reluctant one...at first. One of the unexpected and pleasant outcomes has been my ability and desire to print 'worthy' pictures - even 'work prints' - before too much time has elapsed. I realize there are pros and cons to this; some prefer to wait a long time as part of the creative and editing process. I'm finding, though, that this has better enabled me to build upon themes, keep my process diversified, i.e., less boring, and has resulted in more timely creation of print portfolios of the best work.

This probably reflects to a large degree my failures in the darkroom. I often couldn't get the results I wanted without significant time and effort. And, unlike Mike, I never really enjoyed much of that process, often deferring long print sessions. Digital processing has changed that. The challenge now is to remain as disciplined in the new workflow and self-editing process.

Live forever? I always told my college students that the biggest difference between them and me was that they were going to live forever and I wasn't. They looked at me all glassy-eyed wondering if this was going to be on the test.

Further proof that youth is wasted on the young.

In my case I just become more and more picky about which photos I consider worth my time.

I realized a good many years ago I would never get done everything I want to do in this life so I better set some priorities.

In photography that has meant raising the bar considerably on what I consider worth my time -- keeping the photos I do for myself somewhat distinct from those I do mostly or partly for others.

So far it's working. Being a tougher editor has made me a better photographer -- at least in the sense that I personally am more pleased with those photos I do choose to finish out and show.

Get a grip, y'all. None of us will be known to anyone 300 years from now. No one will have any access to our pictures. Our species exists for only a blink of the eye in the current expansion of the universe. Our audience is here and now and we should present our work to it, here and now. Of course be careful with your work and make it reasonably permanent, but all this hand wringing about permanence is wasted effort.

Several years ago my house burned down and I lost all my negatives and slides. it was Christmas morning so i accepted it as a gift, not a loss. My animals were OK and my camera was in my briefcase in the car.
I took a photo of the burned out structure, went to my office the next day and printed it. After 30 years I was finally caught up. Now I'm only 3 years behind. My income is suffering in this economy and the ink cartridges and paper seem expensive again. It's always something......

Shouldn't that be YOU ARE GOING TO DIE?

Jim wrote:
I'm not sure the past is at all relevant anymore to the current generation.

The past isn't what it used to be, that's for sure.

That's why I prefer to use a medium format rollfilm camera. I spend more time editing before I make an exposure than afterwards.

When you start to worry about your own artistic legacy, that way madness lies.

I've recently started an exercise to cull everything which remains from my 40 years of shooting film and making prints. The aim, on average, is to get rid of 95% - transparencies, negatives and prints. So far the only problem is to resist the urge to throw out 100%.

Unless you are a "name" it's pretty safe to assume that virtually no-one will care about your work after your death.

Right on! Burn baby burn! My turn!

Dear Marc,

The numbers preclude that. Assume for the sake of argument I'm talking about between 10,000 and 15,000 negatives. Even crap scans and crap prints would add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Now add in the fact that I have been a good and fast custom printer my whole life. Those color 8x10s I would bang out at the rate of four an hour in the darkroom? All color corrected to within a gnats whisker, dust free, dodged and burned, and, in many cases, contrast-masked. For me that's an ORDINARY print.

To get prints and scans of the quality, you're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If this bothered me, then maybe I would make it a project to figure out how to raise that kind of money. But it doesn't bother me. I've got no problem leaving a freezer full of negatives and binders full of proof sheets for my heirs to decide what to do with. Won't be a problem I expect to be much concerned with at that point.


Dear Tom,

I think my situation is more similar to Geoff's than yours. You'd probably be right that I've printed the majority of my really, really good photographs, but it wouldn't be the vast majority. For example, if I were interested in expanding my 300-print dye transfer portfolio (don't know if I am or not), I could easily add another 150 photographs to it without diminishing the overall quality one bit. It's less that my first impressions are inaccurate as that I have way, way too many worthwhile negatives and way, way too little time.


Dear Jerry,

I find it quite useless to view life in the long-term. By that analysis, might as well kill oneself now, because one is going to be dead quite soon enough anyway.

Conversely, being a time-binding artist (and what better description of photography is there than that?) I don't reside entirely in the here and now.

If your philosophy works for you, great. I don't think it's a good fit for most of us. I know it isn't for me.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

@ David,

www.inkrepublic.com can make a huge difference these days.....

@ Rest,

Keep the shit digital.....and in a format with ubiqiutous use. So no .raw files only please since these depend on single manufacturers supporting their stuf through the ages.....would not bet on it. Turn it into .jpg's or better tiff's.....al my files are stored as .raw and .jpg's (storage issues). Negatives need to be scanned these days. Go for an affordable scanner (which means as good as you can afford since in order to be preserved it's the image that counts). For those special shots make extra arrangements, especially with loved ones, since these are the best chance for survival. And hey, personally I do not believe in an afterlife so I don't worry to much about what happens when I'm gone. From my viewpoint the universe ends when I'm dead and nobody is gonna be able to correct that opinion :-).

Greetings, Ed

As a historian, Jim's comment made me twitch.

"It depends on how old you are whether you're going to die. I distinctly remember that when I was 27, I wasn't going to die..."(Earlier comment from Mike)

A very good friend of mine- Lieutenant Edward Whitehead of the 16th/5th The Queen's Royal Lancers - was killed a couple of weeks before the first Gulf War, crushed to death when his armoured reconnaissance vehicle rolled over in a training accident in northern Saudi Arabia. I think he was 24. I helped recover the vehicle, and extract his body. We concluded that his death must have been instantaneous, judging by the injuries.

Eddie was the most alive person I will probably ever meet: he simply fizzled with energy, fun, and curiosity. There was not anything that he wasn't interested in or add to by participating. I don't imagine the possibility of his own death crossed his mind much, but I suspect that if it did he'd have laughed.

I view this topic simplistically. The thought process of making photographs with a camera is gratifying to me. The successful transformation of some of these into printed images is equally so, and the result can, hopefully, be appreciated by others. But ultimately, I do it because I enjoy it. If I enjoyed whittling with a pocket knife, I'd do that. Having a backlog of images to print ensures that I'll never have to take up whittling when it is too rainy to go out with my camera. But what's all this about death? All of us?? Really???

My best negatives are some from a 6 x 12 and my very first images taken in 1960 with a 6 x 6 point and shoot. Seriously. Everything in between was okay, some even better than okay, but I've printed the good ones and think David's catastrophe and Jim's idea could also be very liberating for me as an idea of burning the damn things and saving my wife a ton of space in the attic after I'm gone. (Hell, she'll just toss them anyway!)

"like deciding I'll never make a new photograph ever again, to give myself time to get caught up."

Substitute raw processing for printing, and this phrase will explain my current photographic semi-paralysis in the last year. Sigh.

A recent study proved beyond a doubt that living was the #1 cause of death. No other cause comes near.

I still shoot a fair amount of B&W film for kicks and a few frames from each roll will be scanned, saved, resized for web use and most likely not printed. If I land what I think is a gem I'll often print both digitally and in the darkroom.

I'd like to think that some of what I do is art (or at least that I am working my way up to it) but the reason I do it is for my personal satisfaction. Once I'm gone it would be nice if I am remembered to some extent through my photographs, but its hardly going to matter much to me.

I think, for now, I'd prefer to take more photos and argue unproductively about photography generally :). Hopefully I'll get a chance to more deeply consider my mortality at which point I'll knuckle down and try not to leave too much for my children to do.

Dear Ctein:

I enjoy your writings and always find them insightful and thoughtful (even if by someone from that other institute of technology , you know, the one with the missing cannon! IHTFP! )


Joe Kashi

I feel your pain (about scanning old negs).

Furthermore, all too often yet another parameter complicates matters: the fact that most photographers have parents with sizable collections of (unprinted) pictures and slides. Myself, I feel obligated to scan my dad's Kodachromes before my time comes.

Maybe a lifetime is not enough, after all!

Some photos need context. Some photos need the original negative to appreciate. Hence good scanning for those you have printed (even if you do not aim for inkjet). And some quick scanning is needed for those you have not printed so that, well, at least late comer who appreciate your print.

I still want to see the negatives of Ansel Adams.

I wonder whether a fast scanner would be good to provide this context scan. (Using Nikon or Epson flatbed is impossibly slow.) I know that the current mini-lab has very fast medium format scanner (6x7 you used). I meant fast as minilab /sweetshop speed, a hundred roll per hour! You are limited by the time to get the roll in. I saw the machine (with only 35mm) locally everywhere and also 2nd hand one in ebay (and in Hong Kong) but yet to see 2nd hand medium format module. A path to think about.

Dear Herman,

I'm not sure I understand why the format matters. I'm not talking about scanning every single photograph I ever made; only the ones that I think are good enough to print. I don't think using a medium format camera, which I did for 99% of my work, decreased the number of good photographs I made.

My success rate is appallingly (in terms of this discussion) high. I average 5-10% portfolio-worthy photographs (anyone can figure out what that means by going to my website). A considerably higher percentage (20-40%) are good enough that they deserve at least an ordinary 8 x 10 print.


Dear David,

Harking back to Mike's previous columns, while you can't predict what your artistic legacy will be, you can make it harder or easier on folks to deal with whatever legacy you have. And that, in a probabilistic sense, has an effect on how much of a legacy you leave. If your corpus is too much of an impossible hodgepodge, someone will have to be really interested to even bother to dig into it. Conversely, a considerable amount of the famous work we know of from hundreds of years ago did not survive in our collective consciousness because it was the best work of the time but simply because it was the best preserved work of the time.

I figured that out back in college. It actually changed how I operated the world. Consequently, I'm one of relatively few photographers whose film is all properly labeled and stored and who has labeled proof sheets of everything. Furthermore, I got into the habit of saving my correspondence, both paper and electronic, since my college days, and everything I write or that is written to me gets organized and filed away. I'm better with the electronic stuff than the paper; there is a meter-tall stack of papers in the office waiting to be sorted and filed that will probably still be there when I die. But relative to the four full filing cabinets, that's pretty good!

I make no assumptions about whether or not anyone will care about my work after I die. As I said, If I have any concerns at that point, they will not be as regards a mundane artistic legacy, so I don't really much care. But I might as well make it easier and more likely, so long as it doesn't have me jumping through hoops.


Dear MJ,

I must disagree. Dying is the number one cause of death. Living is only about 50% fatal. So far.

(True! About half the people ever born are still alive.)

More morbidly serious, this is why one should always look at the trends rather than the raw averages. The latter can be exceedingly misleading. Back in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when I was doing lots of education panels on the subject, I had to keep pointing out that all the news reports that were talking about 40-60% mortality rates were ignoring the trend. Left to run its course, the true mortality rate, much like life itself, was depressingly close to unity.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

Several years ago my house burned down and I lost all my negatives and slides. it was Christmas morning so i accepted it as a gift, not a loss.

That must have been difficult nonetheless.


Here is how you get your old negatives and slides (and even your parents') scanned in your lifetime. You hire a high school kid. $10 per hour seems more than decent compensation for many students. They can be trained rather quickly to do an adequate job. Maybe they won't do as good a job as you might, but at least you will have a file on your computer that you can look at. Boxes of negatives are not viewable. It is working for me. I have aboiut 30,000 negatives and slides and very few prints. Many date back to 1917. some are even older and are negatives on glass and positives on metal.


Just last night I started another backup of my entire digital archive of photographs, which currently totals about 25,000 files and just under 700 gigabytes.

A question for the people who do regular backups of large numbers of files: How do you know that the files you are backing up are good? Is it possible that you are making copies of files which are corrupt without knowing it?

"It depends on how old you are whether you're going to die. I distinctly remember that when I was 27, I wasn't going to die. Now that I'm turning 54, I'm beginning to see it as more of a possibility.


Had a friend here in the same block of flats as I live in, now. He died on his 60th birthday January 29, 2011!. There were no outward signs of impending death, for him. he was out of work, yet still functioning. Scary.

Death is similar to falling into either a
deep sleep or anethestic for a major bout of surgery. And that's it, or so I am told.
You're there one minute and the next minute not. My last round of surgery made a complete shambles of the process as I counted backwards to zero from ten and then suggested maybe if we started at a higher number then maybe it would be easier for the anethesiologist.
He agreed and I started at thirty. Apprently got to twenty before I dropped off. The anethesiologist came to seem me two or three days after surgery with his apologies, but noted "don't do very many
big males, especially those approaching seven foot tall and 400 pounds.

I turn 65 in May of 2011. Yikes!

Verifying backups is important. I have a friend who discovered when the backup tapes were brought back from off-site to restore from the big disk crash that the tapes they'd been writing were unreadable. And this was at work.

The methods are specific to the software and format. And, unfortunately, you can't count on the "verify" function in your backup software to do the right thing (I remember catching NTI backup skimping there, years ago).

In my own case, all the data on the backup volumes has block checksums in the metadata, and I can instruct the software to read the blocks and verify the checksums. That protects me against hardware problems during the backup writing process, but won't find other kinds of errors (like my scripts not actually saving all my files, say).

One of the things that helps in my case is that the "backup" format is actually just an image of the filesystem. So I can mount it, and look at things on it at random and see if they look right.

Dear Steve,

Here is how I confirm that my archived files are good. I set the Contact Sheet automation in Photoshop CS4 loose on the archived files (Elements, Lightroom, and I think Aperture, have similar functions). Photoshop reads every single file in the archive and generates a thumbnail image of it.

(The automation works better for this purpose than merely having Photoshop or whatever program you use open every single file. The automation doesn't consume much memory; opening every single image archived on a DVD is going to really bog down your system unless you have a lot of RAM.)

Photoshop is very brittle; 99% of the time, if it hits a corrupted file it will simply halt. On rare occasions it will continue, having generated a corrupted thumbnail; they will be very evident when you look at the generated sheets.

In my case, I print out the contact sheets and file them all, as I've written about previously. But you don't have to do that; you could simply save them in the archive as a convenient set of references or even just throw them away after you've examined them on-screen. Their main purpose is verification.

I do this on any hard drive or DVD archive I create. Doesn't ensure against corruption down the line, but it does ensure that at the time of creation the data was uncorrupted and the archive was readable.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

This comes a little late to the discussion, but this news about the imminent destruction of the Sygma archives (approx. 12 million images) would appear to illustrate yet another way in which images are lost forever.


Ctein's method of verification makes sense to me but I get the impression that a lot of people just make copies of their files assuming that they are all o.k.

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