You’re Dead. Now What?

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I was recently reminded (once again) that I am mortal. I’m reasonably sure most of you are, too. And although it’s not something we prefer to dwell on, the reality of it is undeniable and the implications for our artwork are inevitable. We all know we need a legal will to handle our final affairs, but what about all that artwork we’ve produced — a lifetime of creativity that will need attention when we ourselves have been flushed into the ink maintenance tank. I don’t want to be gazing up into the faces of my children as I draw my last breaths and have them ask, “Dad, what should we do with all your photographs?” My greatest fear is that, upon my demise, my artwork’s final resting place will be on sawhorse tables in the front yard at my estate sale, offered to bargain hunters next to the lamps and the furniture. 

For 50-cents. 

A box. 

And it won’t sell. 

The problem intensifies when you consider those hoards in the baby boomer generation who became passionate about photography on the coattails of the mid-20th century masters, all of whom now have boxes upon boxes of matted finished prints, tucked away in the closet dreaming someday of a pardon from their incarceration. If I’m real quiet, in the dead of the night I can almost hear their wee voices shout out, “Free! I want to be free!” But then again, I might just be dreaming. 

Of course, following in the footsteps of those great photographic Masters, we all produced this work to fastidious archival safety. We’ve been assured that our work will survive for generations, or to quote Buzz Lightyear, “To infinity… and beyond!” Are we really sure this was such a good idea? Since, clearly, you and I won’t last to infinity and beyond, somebody, somewhere will have to assume the responsibility of caring for (or disposing of) these recalcitrant, acid-free, artifacts. From one perspective, they’re not so much Art (with a capital A), as they might very well become to our heirs Albatross with a capital A. 

Ansel Adams had a terrific solution. In 1974 he got together with the University of Arizona to found the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. This became a permanent repository for all of his (and a number of other great photographers’) archives where they could be preserved in perpetuity. His work, and the work of Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Eugene Smith, and many, many others is thankfully stored away by professionals who know how to handle these materials and preserve them for future generations. It’s a fabulous resource and one that certainly deserves a spot on every photographers “Things I must do before I die” list. While you are there, however, I recommend you not ask them if they have any interest in accepting your archives into the collection. The idea behind the Center was a terrific one, but once those floodgates had opened, the University quickly discovered how productive the world of photography had become. Request after request after request came in from heir after heir after heir as the search for a permanent archive location for Dad’s or Mom’s or Grandpa’s precious art archives multiplied. Wisely, they shut the floodgates and bolted them tight. Then they welded them closed. Then they locked it with an elfin key and buried it somewhere in the Arizona desert so others would be discouraged from submitting their work — unless by a very special arrangement or invitation. Too bad you and I aren’t Ansel Adams because the longevity of our work would now be assured. Coming a generation later, the problem for us still remains. 

Perhaps I’m more aware of the acute nature of this problem than the average photographer because of my position in publishing. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been approached by some remaining family member asking for advice on what they should do with dear old Dad’s precious pile of prints. Worse, with every passing year and aging baby boomer’s passing, the collective problem grows by the ton. 

The conventional wisdom is that our university alma mater would be delighted to collect our precious artwork. Unfortunately, such fantasies ignore the chief reality facing institutions that accept such donations: the responsibility of preserving and archiving them. This is not an inexpensive undertaking. Besides, just to own some artwork is somewhat meaningless unless there is some reason it needs to be preserved, studied, written about, considered from a historical perspective, and possibly even exhibited. All these activities require funding. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the response most universities have to requests to deposit a photographer’s archives in their holdings is to agree to the proposition — as soon as you can provide the funding for its preservation. I often hear numbers like $80,000 to $100,000 bandied about as the amount that is typically requested by a university for the preservation and administration of even a modest archive of photographs. I can’t fault the university, because their expenses are real and predictable. Nonetheless, it does strike me as sprinkling salt on the wound when the photographer has funded a lifetime of art making and then faces the reality that they must also underwrite its long-term preservation. 

One family I know (who shall remain nameless) has in their possession roughly 1,000 photographs produced by a family member whose name you would recognize, I’m sure. They’ve tried for years to find a long-term home for the preservation of this important work — only to find it almost impossible to develop a solution that doesn’t rise quickly into the mid-six-figure level of funding. I know another photographer, again a well-known and respected individual, who passed away with some 5,000 photographs finished and matted for which there were no arrangements made for long-term preservation. The surviving family members are burdened with trying to find a permanent home for this work, and in the meantime it accomplishes nothing except to occupy a certain cubic space in the universe — no exhibitions, no publications, no critical essays, no historical research, nothing. If this was an isolated problem of one or two photographers, it wouldn’t be worth considering much further. It is not, however, isolated nor unique. For every one ofus — most of whom are somewhat less famous than Ansel Adams (ahem) — the problem still remains for our families, and therefore for us. 

I’ve thought a great deal about this and developed a bit of a personal strategy that might be useful to share. Because I am not yet dead, what follows is an untested theory. I’m afraid I won’t be able to offer any comments if it’s eventually proven to have worked. So, here’s my approach to dealing with my own lack of archivalness. 

Disperse While I Am Alive 

I cannot imagine that there would ever be anyone at any time who would be more interested in developing an audience for my work than I am. It seems obvious, then, that it’s foolish for me to assume that some third party, after my demise, would have more success in distributing my work than I would. They simply can’t possibly be as motivated as I am. Berenice Abbott notwithstanding, it’s a questionable strategy to plan simultaneously for contemporary anonymity and posthumous fame. Therefore, my attitude is that I have a responsibility to my work, to myself, and to my family to disperse as much of my productivity out into the world as I possibly can while I am still alive and able to do so. Simply said, I accept the responsibility for distribution of my work with as much commitment and passion as I have for producing it. Failure to do so on my part would result in the untenable responsibility of a somewhat bulky and undistributed archive that I know would become a burden on those I leave behind. I simply cannot bring myself to be that selfish and impose that responsibility on unsuspecting and perhaps unwilling family members. 

Reasonable Pricing 

In order to facilitate the distribution of my work, I recognize the role that marketing and pricing have been either furthering those goals or inhibiting them. When Maureen and I go second-handing, a phrase that often comes up is, “They’ve priced it like they want to keep it.” I smile and think of photographic artwork in the typical gallery. If you price your prints for, say, $500 you will probably own them when you die. In which case, why not price them $1 million? There will be no functional difference, but you will have 2000 times more bragging potential. Rather than say “My work doesn’t sell for $500,” you can say, “My work doesn’t sell for $1 million,” — and think how much better that will make you feel. 

Instead, I try as best I can to price my work fairly — so that I can provide the funding to produce more work through the sale of my work — and so that anyone who connects aesthetically or emotionally with something I’ve produced is not prevented from owning it should they desire to do so. It’s a simple distribution strategy, but one that seems to have worked successfully since the dawn of civilization with everything that trades hands in ownership — except, that is, the insane world of inflated modern art prices. But I’ve talked about this so much elsewhere, I’ll move on. 

Sunset clause 

Most creative photographers produce, over the course of a lifetime, lots of work. It is an accumulative activity. If you arrive, like I have, at the threshold of age, you probably have a sizable pile of negatives or digital files from which you can make some pretty good prints. But is it really necessary that something you did in your 20s is still available for sale in your 60s? There is something about photography that lends itself to an overly-acquisitive pursuit. We’re a bit like trophy hunters who gather and gather and gather, but never let go. Admittedly, that’s part of the fun of photography, to be sure. But, one of the implications of this approach is that as your career matures, the catalog of your available prints can balloon to unreasonable proportions. This does nothing but complicate the problem of dispersal and distribution of your work.  

With this in mind, my strategy is often to employ a sunset clause on anything I’ve produced. I don’t do limited editions for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere, but I will often put a sunset clause on a project or product simply so that it doesn’t drag on in perpetuity. I’ve often referred to these older images as “inventory cholesterol.” They drag and weigh us down with work from our past — and occasionally that’s a reasonable thing to do. But more often than not, I find it a better strategy to let go, move on, and allow artistic growth — and its converse artistic retirement — to be a part of the process. 


For me, one of the strategies that helps keep me on track is to produce finished projects rather than piles of prints. Piles of prints tend not to go anywhere, except into the long-term storage box. Projects — be they books, folios, chapbooks, PDFs, whatever — have a distribution life that is far easier and far more comfortable. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that when I finish a project, I’m finished. Finished is a different thing than produced. It’s easier to let go when a project is finished than when it’s a print that still has potential for exhibition, sale, or some other fantasized future. A great print of a mountain scene I make today might go together with a great print of a mountain scene I make 20 years from now — and become part of an exhibition I might do 30 years from now — or so I thought in my youth. Better hang on to all of those prints because the future retrospective show might require them. I discovered, however, that prints I made 20 years ago are almost never a comfortable companion to something I made yesterday because so much as changed — materials, presentation methods, me. Instead, if I work on projects that are completed now, I find it easier for me to artistically move on  — and that makes it easier for me to let go. 

The Gift Economy 

I try to stay disciplined when I think about getting my work out into the world and not focus my thoughts on selling. Yes, selling work is important, because funding our future work is important. But instead of putting my energies strictly into selling work, I find it much more productive to think in terms of distributing my work. Distribution may or may not involve commerce. In his wonderful book titled The Gift, Lewis Hyde makes a strong case for what he calls “the gift economy.” Simply said, there is karmic virtue in distributing our artwork without requiring commercial or monetary exchange. I give away tremendous amounts of my work. It gives me great joy; it gives (I hope) great joy to the receiver; it may even give great joy to friends of the recipients who see work they might not otherwise have the chance to see; and it will likely give great joy to my heirs who will no longer be required to disperse that piece of artwork. In the course of my life, I have given away literally thousands of photographs, folios, or chapbooks, and tens of thousands of PDFs. I cannot think of one negative implication of having done so — not one. Similarly, I can think of only one virtue for all the work I have tucked away in my storage closet — and mostly that has to do with the learning curve and lessons acquired in producing it. But for the actual piece of artwork itself, lying dormant in my storage closet is a perfectly virtueless existence.  

What I Do Keep 

I produce for distribution; whatever else there is, I toss out. I don’t keep proofs or test prints; I neither produce nor keep an inventory of images “just in case”; I see no benefit in hoarding my own output. If it’s not a finished project I can push out of the nest, I toss it out. Then I toss out more. And as a final act of mercy to my loved ones, I toss out a bit more. Big garbage cans are an important part of my strategy. 

I do try to be pragmatic about this, however, and feel the need to keep some things. At some point in time it may be handy for there to be a collection that is representative of the work that I’ve done in my life. I feel no compulsion to make that a complete collection, but I’m perfectly happy having only a representative sample of the types of things I’ve done. With this in mind, I do keep some prints, folios, chapbooks, etc. selected from work I’ve produced over the years. Often these are numbered A/Ps, or occasionally the tail-end of a numbered production run. Who knows, at some point in time someone may find either historical, research, or perhaps even exhibition value in having, in one place, a collection of representative samples. If they do, it’s important for me to make that possible. If it never has any value, however, it will at least be a relatively small pile for my family to disperse when I assume room temperature. 


I suppose it’s not absolutely necessary for us to concern ourselves with any of this. We could just continue to produce the work and let the responsibility of dealing with it fall on someone else’s shoulders. This may be a perfectly acceptable strategy for some, but for me it makes a lot more sense to be a bit more proactive in my postmortem art career by doing things now, while I have time and health on my side in my premortem existence. In one of those odd twists of logic, I have faith that by working to distribute my work while I’m alive, I’m actually helping it stay alive after I’m gone. Artwork in the hands of someone who appreciates it seems a much livelier fate than to lock it away in a vault somewhere so some unknown person in some unknown time as a result of some unknown happenstance gives it life in some unknown future. I prefer the here and now, and to breathe life into my work while I still have breath myself.