It was just five years ago that I posted a lengthy query to my online friends about the future of my vast photography catalog—thousands of slides, negatives and prints that I’d been accumulating since I started shooting in 1976. What happens to a lifetime’s worth of photos when you have no kids to inherit them? Do photographs still hold the same importance that they held for the Analog Generation? Do I really care? Should I really care? And so on.
In addition to my own boatload of film, there were thousands of family photos (mostly Kodachrome and Ektachrome slides) dating all the way back to the early 1940s. Sorting through all of this material and scanning the good stuff was a task that had been on my list for a long, long time, but the scope of the project seemed so daunting that I perpetually shoved it aside. Well, thanks to a pandemic that encouraged me to spend a greater amount of time at home during the past two years, that daunting project was finally tackled…and completed far more easily than I ever expected.
In deciding what to keep and what to dump, I asked myself if the image met any one of these three criteria:
– Was it good enough to be shared in my portfolio or on social media?
– Could it be monetized as a stock image?
– Did it have a strong sentimental or family quality?
Very early into the sorting process, I realized that my current approach to shooting with 35mm film is much more selective than it was in the last century, when both film and processing were cheap and easily accessible. The pile of slides and negatives destined for the landfill rapidly grew as I frequently commented, “Why did I keep this crap?” I had saved rolls that were nothing but camera tests and/or lens tests; rolls featuring multiple frames of the same scene with different exposure settings or different Wratten filters applied; rolls of dark, blurry and grainy concert photos from the 1980s; rolls containing far too many shots of scenery without a person or a true subject in the frame (something that I find more and more unappealing with each passing year).
It wasn’t at all difficult to let go of the clunkers; there was no agonizing over the fate of any particular image. The prevailing mood during the process was that of Good riddance! To my surprise and relief, I needed only two days to pass judgment on every photo in my collection.
In the end, less than 5% of that old film made the cut for digital preservation.
As for those questions I posted online five years ago while pondering the fate of my catalog, I don’t believe that anything in my philosophy has changed between then and now, it was simply a matter of needing to be immersed in the task and actually seeing most of these images for the first time in years to realize their relative unimportance.
So after scanning the few hundred desirable frames I had selected (and backing up the digital files in three additional locations), I was free to cart decades worth of clutter out the door:
All of my negatives, all of my slides, all of my photographic prints and contact sheets…gone.
Why stop there? Since I was on a roll, it was the perfect time to sort through all of my vintage media, digitize only the best material, and send those old containers on their way:
Movies on 8mm and 16mm film…gone.
Videotapes (VHS, 8mm, MiniDV, Beta SP, U-Matic)…gone.
And all of the bulky vintage devices used for playing such media…gone.
My home is now several hundred pounds lighter.
For the record, I have not renounced my belief in the superior quality of analog media. Music still sounds better on vinyl, and photos still look better when shot on film and printed on paper. But vinyl doesn’t travel well; I tend to listen to music while I’m on the move. And I don’t invite people to the house to look at photographic prints; if I want my widely-scattered friends to see a picture, it needs to be availble online. The old media may be gone, but the images, the audio and the video remain, now easier to store and share and carry with me. It’s all part of my continuing forward progress toward a more compact and portable life.
But I’m not yet ready to part with everything that I’ve acquired in decades past. Two analog collections are being kept—likely for many years to come. Their superiority over contemporary digital equivalents is profound enough to justify living and traveling with their bulk. A look at those items, next weekend…
“What happens to a lifetime’s worth of photos when you have no kids to inherit them?”
Ha. Inherit? The kids don’t *want* them!
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Not the cool kids, anyway. 😉
I for one will say, I WANT THEM! Growing up the only way I saw or learned about family members from my parent’s sides was from looking through photo albums and trying to read the handwritten scribbles on the back labeling who was in the photo and when it was taken. I have grown up in a digital world being born in the mid-90s and I love everything about having the physical medium. While I do agree with vinyl not traveling and sharing photos online is the only way possible. I would have such a hard time getting rid of anything I physically took with slides and negatives. I still try to find other people’s slides in projectors in thrift stores, to see what other people’s families were like in those captured moments.
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Thanks for commenting, Austin. My point of view was similiar when I was your age. Now, I’m really enjoying my streamlined and decluttered life. Not to be morbid, but my goal is to die with absolutely no possessions. As for our family photos, there was no writing or other info on them. But I am glad that I was able to scan all of the important ones, so while the hard copies may be gone, I can still enjoy the images. Have fun with your pictures!
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