After more than a year of meetings and informal discussions with Al Weber and a few other photographers who shared his concern for what might happen to the archives of an aging population of career photographers, the Foundation for Photographic Preservation (FfPP) was organized as a California non-profit corporation in August 2006. We subsequently qualified for tax-deductible status under Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(3). The specific purpose of the corporation is to facilitate the preservation of the works of photographers, or of photographic collections, that have artistic, historical or social merit.
Over the years of our existence we have found that our efforts have often been focused on assisting photographers at the end of their lives; or after a photographer’s death, assisting families who have little understanding of the archive’s significance or how to go about organizing and preparing it for placement.
One of our early goals was to publish a book or a manual with information and instructions about how to organize and place a collection. Although there are a few commonalities, the most important thing we have learned is that no two situations are ever alike. We also realized that we did not have to reinvent the wheel. There is already a wealth of information on preservation available, both online and in print, from various professional organizations such as the Society of American Archivists.
Although we have helped organize and place a number of collections, it has not been possible to place all of the archives we have worked with. There would never be enough space to house the work of every significant photographer we encounter. While we have assisted in the successful placement of collections with private schools, libraries, historical societies and universities, other attempts have stalled for various reasons. One archive documenting a city that became famous as a technology center was destroyed when family members couldn’t agree to work together for its preservation. Other archives we’ve worked on still languish because, at least for the present, we reached a dead-end in exploring avenues for placement.
The economy, too, has taken its toll. In turbulent economic times there are diminishing opportunities for archive placement, especially in institutions. As a result, we have recommended other solutions such as scanning and self-publishing. The following summaries represent work that has been done by FfPP volunteers starting in 2006. Although our mission has changed from hands on assistance to education, we present them here to illustrate the wide range of situations other career photographers have faced in attempting to preserve their work.
- Although we can’t really take credit for the very first placement with which we were involved, FfPP was an important sounding board for family members who were a part of our fledgling organization at the time. The photographer had been a successful commercial photographer and a teacher. The son and daughter-in-law had physical custody of the archive, but two other brothers shared ownership. Everyone had a similar goal, to see their father’s life’s work preserved. But each family member had very different ideas about how that should be accomplished. We learned through close observation of this family’s process that even when everyone shares a goal, accomplishing that goal can be a lengthy, painful process dredging up family angst from the past. In the end, in spite of family frictions a plan was ultimately agreed upon and the entire archive was acquired by an important university.
- We worked with a photographer who had been a student, friend and assistant of Ansel Adams. Early in her career she photographed for a regional magazine and later taught for many years and was head of the photography department at a community college. In addition to her own photographs, she had a collection of photographs by well known photographers who were friends and contemporaries. She had interviewed many of these people for her classes and had an extensive collection of audiotapes from those interviews. We helped her get started on the task of cleaning out her darkroom and organizing and making an inventory of photographs and equipment. She followed up with professional contacts she had at two universities, and one acquired her archive while the other acquired some of the equipment.
- FfPP was contacted by one photographer as he faced a terminal illness. His concern wasn’t so much with the disposition of his many prints and negatives, as much as with the continued life of the images. With Al Weber’s encouragement and participation, this photographer spent the last months of his life selecting what he considered the very best images. Al put the photographer’s wife in contact with a design team who scanned the photographs and designed a book for self-publication. Only a few copies of the book were printed, mainly for the family, but everyone who sees the book agrees that the work is important and is grateful that there is a record of this man’s vision. Unfortunately, the photographer passed away two days before the book’s publication, but he died knowing that his life’s work was available for future generations.
- One photographer we advised went through his archive and identified his most important work. He then scanned it and put it on a DVD. He included a short video of himself explaining his meticulous organization system. The work was ultimately acquired by a university.
- Another photographer with a relatively small archive and no heirs decided to distribute his photographs to his many friends and professional associates to enjoy in their homes and offices. He also donated photographs to local non-profit organizations to be used for fundraising purposes.
- FfPP volunteers worked with the widow of a man who photographed over much of his life, although photography was not his primary profession. He had died suddenly and there was no prior plan for the disposition of his archive. We cleared out his darkroom and studio, organizing and making an inventory of photographs and equipment. We also organized the photographs into several portfolios that we considered his best work. This photographer had been a founder, active board member, fundraiser and donor of a private high school and was well known and admired by staff and students alike. Meeting with the head of the school lead to them acquiring the archive and some of the equipment. The school later honored the photographer with an exhibition in the school’s new library.
- FfPP assisted in placing part of a large archive with a public library that has an interest in regional history. The library accepted more than 4,500 images and prints representing about a third of the collection. The deceased photographer was a retired teacher and commercial photographer who had documented the life of the region for over 60 years. An FfPP volunteer who also volunteered for the library worked more than a year to help organize and catalog the archive.
- FfPP was contacted by the family of an American photographer and journalist who left the U.S. in 1959 and lived the rest of his life in Brazil where he documented the lives of important musicians, writers and artists. After the photographer’s death in 2000 custody of his archive was given to a highly respected institution in his adopted country by a friend. The archive was being well taken care of, but the agreement was informal and the photographer’s three sons in the U.S. who are the legal heirs wanted to formalize the rights and obligations of the institution with respect to the archive. FfPP acted as a resource for the family in its negotiation of a long-term loan and licensing of the collection to the institution, and of a sharing with the family of the proceeds of any commercial use.
What to do with one’s work is ultimately a very personal decision, and it is best if the photographer can make plans for its disposition during his/her lifetime. The task of organizing a life’s body of work need not be overwhelming even though there is a lot of emotional and physical work involved. Give yourself a three-year or a five-year plan for the clearing out and organization process, but commit to doing some work on it every month.
The starting place is to clear out the excess darkroom and studio equipment. As the clutter subsides, significant photographs have a way of showing up and taking their place. As they do, start making lists of the different directions of your work along with lists of the best photographs in each category. As the work piles up, be critically selective about which photographs and what number of them truly represent your life in photography. Chances are that unless you are a really important photographer no one will be interested in taking everything, especially if it’s not been edited and organized.
You may want to scan your best work and/or self-publish it. It can be helpful to have something to show people as you explore personal and professional contacts and identify organizations or institutions that might have an interest in your archive. Keep in mind that many institutions require an appraisal by a professional appraiser before they will accept an acquisition even if it is a gift. You will also need an appraisal if you wish to treat the gift as a tax deductible charitable contribution. Think about whether you would be able or willing to make a donation to the entity that accepts the archive to help offset the costs of cataloging and housing it. Talk to your family about your plans for the archive after you’re gone. If family conflicts are anticipated over ownership, make sure you leave written instructions or address your wishes in your will or trust.
Organizing your life’s work is equally as important as the work itself. You know the work better than anyone. Don’t leave the crucial process of editing and organization to your heirs. Taking charge and making plans for your archive’s eventual disposition will give you peace of mind and free up your energy for the creation of new work.