It has taken me a very long time.
Perhaps it was the conversation and interview that Elin Spring and I had with Harold Feinstein (Harold Feinstein Photographer) and his wife Judith last week. Perhaps it was that I have a new summer assistant named Hannah who already has proven to be a huge help. And perhaps because it was time to face up to organizing, filing, correcting and re-boxing a career's worth of negatives made between 1968 to 2006. Yes, my friends, that is 38 years.
Harold Feinstein's negatives
I am known for many things, of course (stubborn, clueless, impatient,etc). But one of these characteristics is that I am very prolific. This has proven true as we work to consolidate, date, throw out and make findable all those negatives. Man, I shot a lot! Thousands of 8 x 10 negatives. No idea how much 2 1/4 but certainly even more. For instance, many years Ilford was giving me 8 x 10 black and white film in a program to test new emulsions in the "field" to the tune of 1500 to 1700 sheets a year. I would file a user's report at the end of each year, along with a request for the next year. Somehow I managed to shoot all the film allocated. I remember one summer in Italy while teaching I shot 700 sheets. They were films like: Delta 400, XP1, XP2, HP5 and HP4.
Funny how we put things off. Some people are very good at "doing it now". Me, not so much. But as I will train Hannah to scan some of the negatives made over those 38 years, it becomes a little more important to be able to find them. Hence the great "refiling project" going on presently at my studio. We have a plan. Once the negatives are organized and work is findable, I will choose negatives for Hannah to scan on the Creo Scitex Eversmart Pro flatbed scanner in my studio. This is the same scanner, by the way, that I used to scan the negatives for my black and white book called "American Series". She will scan, mostly in the 8 x 10 format, and then "clean" the images created as large TIFF files. Why bother? Because if over 20 years worth of 8 x 10 negatives aren't scanned and cleaned and made RTP (Ready to Print) they will, for all intents and purposes, not exist. Same goes for over thirty years of 120mm, 35 mm and 4 x5 film. What does "cleaning" mean? Very simply, to remove dust and scratches that are either on the surface of the film or on one of the four sides of glass in the scanner. As much as these are maintained and cleaned, there is always dust. Of course, 8 x 10 is a perfect surface for dust as it is so very large. An 8 x 10 negative is capable of incredible levels of fidelity and phenomenal amounts of dust. The cleaning is done digitally in Photoshop with the rubber stamp tool, although it is necessary to keep those four glass surfaces physically clean as well. Scanning is deadly dull work but exacting too. I wish Hannah well with it.
We are arranging the negatives in polypropylene boxes in years, from the bottom shelf being the earliest to the top shelf the most recent. I stopped shooting film sometime in 2006. Labels will be by date, place and project, Dymo taped on the outside of each box. Once we get that done we hope to create a database so that projects can be searchable.
Before, the way my negatives have been stored for years. Note predominance of yellow Kodak paper boxes. Paper and film are not archival.
All this is being done at the same time that we in the "Photographers Legacy Project" (PLP) are finding that very often negatives are thought of as not so important due to the sheer difficulty for archivests and museum curators to deal with them. The members of our volunteer PLP group are: Paula Tognarelli, Lou Jones, Elin Spring, Drew Epstein and myself. Current thinking is that for many, signed prints are the best vehicle to maintain a legacy of a photographic artist's work. Most prints are archival (a topic for another time: what is archival?), are easily aunthenticated due to being signed, easy to see and to store.
New system using plastic boxes. Once we are done with the boxing, I will begin to go through each box and label its contents. Right now they are just labeled by year.
I have written this in other forms in this blog in past years but here it is again, reformatted. Aspire to be a "professional artist"? Want the fame and glory (hah!) along with all the income (double hah!)? Well, get professional. That means get organized. Do the work to be able to find your own work. No small task for many career artists. Once you've figured out where it all is and have sorted it, store it responsibly, make it searchable. It seems obvious to say this but believe me I know first hand what this is like: a prospective client, a gallery owner, a museum curator comes to your studio or work room or home office to look at work. This is a time when you want to look like you know what you are doing, right? You show some work and the person asks what else you have from that time period or from that place, or that process, or that approach and then you begin the search for just where that one body of work is you know will slay them. Imagine having an "aha!" moment when you've found just what you were looking for only to find that the portfolio is incomplete, that the core pictures aren't in the box like they should be! OMG, this isn't good, is it? I have been there and it isn't pretty.
Old cardboard boxes used to store negatives in the dumpster.
To recapitulate. While doing it right now might not be possible doing it soon probably is. Put it on your list. Make it a priority. Oh, and one other thing, speaking from personal experience. Once you've got your negatives and prints, etc. organized, you'll want to keep them that way.