I sit in my basement, surrounded by 50-plus years of precious possessions we’ve saved over that time. Between us, Mary Jo and I have worked at 24 jobs for 21 newspapers in 13 states. We’ve worked as photographers, editors, designers, managers, coaches, educators. And we’ve changed residences 18 times.
We haven’t moved for 25 years, but now we’re downsizing to a smaller house more suitable for septuagenarians (no stairs).
Which leaves us to sort through 50 years of stuff we’ve carried around.
What to keep, give away, sell or trash?
Among a host of others, I have:
● An old, weathered baseball bat I used when I played in Little League. My father kept it in spite of the fact that I was a terrible player whose biggest achievement was getting on base on a fielder’s choice. Once. Trash it.
● A stamp album I’ve kept since I was 12. Not valuable, but sentimental. Keep.
● Hundreds of books. Photo books, great fiction, trashy novels, textbooks. Give away most.
● A gauche, pretentious trophy I won for being Indiana Photographer of the Year two years in a row. Keep.
● A very old radio/record player console that belonged to my grandmother. Give to my daughter for her to keep.
● A box with a complete set of World Book Encyclopedias I find under the basement stairs. Remember those? Trash.
● An ax signed by the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle as a going-away present when we moved back to the country in Indiana. Keep.
● Old Nikon F lenses. Trash. Gasp!
● Two boxes of board games unplayed in years. Give to my nephews.
● Two of the finest enlargers ever made, the Leitz Focomat V35. Sell or give away.
The real conundrum though is the boxes and boxes of clips, slides, prints and negatives. Keep?
Or, more to the point, why keep? Who cares?
For some time, my cynical answer has been that no one cares. It’s unlikely anything we save is going to be accessed by many people. But that really doesn’t matter. Who cares is not the issue. We’re privileged; we get access to events and, more importantly, people’s lives, and we share what we see.
Sharing. That’s why we do what we do and why our work is important enough to keep for posterity, so it can continue to be shared.
Smarter folks than I can tell you how to archive, from sending material to the cloud to making prints and putting them in a nice box. Being a bit of a curmudgeon, I favor the latter, but I do have copies on multiple hard drives.
I'm also going to do something that seemed counterintuitive at first. I'm going to post all of my favorite work on social media. Rather than protect it from being reused, I’ll encourage it.
Here are two examples of why archiving is important.
You never know how a photograph can take on historical value or be repurposed. In the early ’80s, Mary Jo did a picture story on a migrant labor camp where Mexican workers were bringing in a crop. Among the selects was a picture of twin girls on the porch of their tiny, scrubby camp house. They were wearing hand-me-down clothes and looking at the photographer warily.
She thought the photograph symbolized the family’s hope for a better future.
Years later she remembered the photograph, and it inspired this drawing by her in charcoal. She wonders if the people who bought the drawing, who know its background, now look at it on their wall and think sympathetically of the children currently separated from their families at the border. The original photograph, however, is missing. Because of poor archiving.
My 98-year-old grandmother lived the last four years of her life in one half of a nursing-home room. One day my grandson came with me to visit her. It’s an extraordinary thing to be a grandson and a grandfather at the same time, so this has special meaning for me. And
even if these people were strangers, I’d still love the moment. It’s a pretty obvious choice to keep it, so it’s preserved. Because of good archiving.
Bryan Moss is a photojournalist who makes pictures of everyday people doing everyday things in and around Corydon, Indiana. His website is lifeincorydon.com. Bryan can be reached at [email protected].
What to do with all that stuff we have collected toward the end of a career? Tell us what you’re doing or what you plan to do with your photographic archive. Maybe we can help one another deal with that big pile of …... stuff. Send your story to [email protected].