My birthday is coming up soon and even though, mentally, I don’t feel like I’m going to be in my late 40s, the physical signs are there. Aches in the morning, occasional crotchitiness and the overwhelming desire to wear “old man jumpsuits“.
This has caused me to start thinking of my photographic legacy.
I’ve long come to peace with the fact that I’ll never be more than a minor “noted” photographer, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’ve, over the course of the last 15 years, published thousands of photos that someone, someday, may want to have access to.
But how to go about it?
One of my recent projects has been to scan all of the negatives, prints and slides that I’ve inherited from my grandparents and parents. There are thousands of photos of long-gone family members, mostly-forgotten vacations and others that defy categorization (and make you ask “why did someone take a photo of this?”.
This project has made me come to realize that, despite all their drawbacks in our modern photographic world, physical copies of photos—bulky, indeterminate resolutions, easily-damaged, difficult-to-edit, etc.—have one great advantage: they’re accessible.
For example, photos of my grandparents’ long drive to Alaska nearly 50 years ago are almost just as accessible to me, today in 2022, as they were to them in 1975. Sure, they needed a slide projector to easily view them and I needed a negative scanner to digitize them, but the images themselves have been immutable for almost half a century. And, sure, they might be slightly damaged from decades of mishandling and less-than-optimal storage, but the essence of the photos is still there.
Fast-forward to this century and we take more photos than ever. Everyone has a camera on them at all times and billions of new photos are taken every year. And, sure, a lot of these are crap that no one cares about—photos of receipts and things like that. But the problem with these photos are that they just exist in the ether—ones and zeroes on a hard drive or a cloud or and SD card…there are no physical copies and their longevity is dependent on the reliability of third-party cloud providers or the dependability of your computer’s hard drive.
They say that once something is online, it’s online forever. But that’s not true. The roughly 100K photos in my iCloud library—nearly every photo I’ve taken on my various iPhones since 2007—photos of my wife and I, our families, our pets, would just disappear if I stopped paying my iCloud bill or my estate didn’t maintain my account were I to get hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow. My Flickr Pro account will disappear within a couple of months of no one paying the bills. This website will disappear the same way (though, somewhat-thankfully, the Wayback Machine has semi-recent snapshots of both this blog and the main site).
And maybe most of those photos don’t matter and no one cares, but there’s something sad about no one being able to access those photos 50 years from now like I have been able to relive my grandparents’ adventures in Alaska or their time in Europe or even just simple things like the old photos of childhood vacations and Christmases.
I keep trying to come up with a strategy to secure my photographic legacy and, honestly, I’ve come up short.
Part of the problem I face is that my wife and I have no direct heirs. Due to circumstances, we never had children, so the closest things to heirs we have are our various nieces and nephews.
And they’re too young, I think, at this point to care enough to get involved in preserving this legacy. Not to mention that they have their own parents’ digital legacies to worry about.
The pieces that I do have in place or are working on:
- Shared iCloud Photo Library with my wife. At least, if I go first, she’ll have access to the photos in iCloud. Of course, this is entirely dependent on her maintaining/paying for the account, so I need to ensure that she has a plan for this.
- Weekly exports of master files for all photos on 75CentralPhotography. These photos are the thousands I’ve published over the years and have value in licensing. Every week, I export these as both JPGs and TIFFs and copy them to a 1 TB USB drive that goes into a fireproof safe. At least this way, there will be master copies of these files available for potential revenue after I’m gone.
- Photographic workflow documentation. I’ve been working on a document that outlines my workflow and how I catalog my photos in Lightroom. My hope is that someone will be able to find any photo in my archive in the future.
- The negatives/slides/prints I’ve been scanning that are part of the larger familial photographic legacy will also be mastered onto a USB drive at some point soon once I’m finished. In the interim, everything is published on a private, password-protected gallery on my site to allow my family access to view/download. The good thing about these photos is that they still have physical media available, so they will continue to be accessible that way, though the media continues to degrade.
But there are so many gaps with this strategy. Other items I’m considering: occasional exports of iCloud photos to ensure that there are non-Cloud copies of snapshots of the family and archival-quality prints of my published photos ($$$$—seriously, the cheapest 8×12 archival quality print, the smallest size I would consider useful, that I could find was $5 each…almost $30K dollars for all my published photos. Investing in a high-quality pro printer and paper would be somewhat-cheaper at a higher opportunity cost). Another option, though for far more dollar-signs, is to create photo books of the most-precious photos.
I’m also open to suggestions.
One thing I’d like to see is a foundation that is dedicated to preserving digital-era photographers’ legacies. Perhaps you could apply to join the foundation and it, through a permanent endowment, would preserve your photos in perpetuity, perhaps in exchange for licensing rights. At least with this approach, there would be an opportunity for future generations to enjoy your art.
I’m just not 100% sure what to do. And maybe that’s okay…maybe no one really will care once I’m gone. Maybe I have a very-inflated sense of my photographic legacy’s worth. And, ultimately, I won’t be around to care one way or another.