Friday, September 17, 2010

Revisiting old photos

The theme this month is "revise, reshoot, refine," but I can't help but add "revisit" to the list. If you've been reading this month's posts, you know that the theme is inspired by the writing process. When it comes to writing academic papers, I have a fairly tedious method. First, I cast the net wide. Let's say, for example, that I want to write about scientific instruments in the 17th and 18th centuries ("Why would anyone want to do that?" you say, and yet I did). I don't like to know exactly what I'm going to say in advance because it doesn't seem very honest. So I read book after book and take notes. I feel like I have to reach some sort of critical mass before I stop collecting notes and actually start writing. One of my best experiences in the "casting the net wide" phase of research was when after a couple of months in the same French library, the librarian let me browse the hidden stacks of not-yet cataloged rare books. For me, it was as if I had tamed the fox in The Little Prince. This is a complete digression, I know, but before I start making things apply to photography, I have to say that going through neglected books, papers, and ephemera is hands-down my favorite part of research (Don't get me started on my week at the Cooper-Hewitt with 12 boxes of papers related to the origins of industrial design or I'll never get this post done.) I like to think that it's the same feeling William Eggleston (one of my favorite photographers) has when he takes a picture of a ceiling fan or a stack of garbage bags.

Did I lose you yet? Let me bullet point my tedious research/writing process and then skip to how this applies to revisiting old photos:
  • The initial phase leads to perhaps 100 pages of typed notes
  • I then move on to the "notes of my notes" phase, where I pull out possibly relevant quotes and get it down to maybe 36 pages.
  • Finally, I write the actual academic article (that will be read by far fewer people than this hasty blog post) and use only a fraction of those notes.
The parallels with photography seem clear, don't they?
  • First, I take way too many photos (unlike Eggleston, by the way, who thinks that if you take more than one picture of the same thing, then it's just too painful to have to choose)
  • Next, I rate my photos in Aperture. One star means "Why am I keeping this? I should really just delete this. Help! William Eggleston was right!" Two stars—i never use two stars, what's the point? Three stars means the photo has no major technical flaws. Four stars means I think this could be the one, but I don't want to commit until I have seen all the options. And five stars means I think the photo is worthy of actual post-processing attention.
  • Post-processing doesn't mean I'll ever bother to print. A very small fraction of photos end up on my wall or in an album. And the ones that make it aren't always the best ones; they're just the best ones for a certain context.
But what happens to the rest? Are they worth revisiting?
This struck me when Becky from "Life with Kaishon" included the following photo of mine in her interview of me:

I actually love this photo, but I had completely forgotten about it. I took it two years ago as Eva was sleeping on my chair. She's five now, and the blanket is still a huge source of comfort for her, although most of the time it has to stay in her bed.

In my hunt for the original file in Aperture, I opened a folder of photos I took for her birth announcement and there it was—the blanket, making its pink and pristine d├ębut as a backdrop for our equally pink and pristine baby girl. I immediately made a diptych of the two photos:

There's an empty 8x10 frame on our wall that I have never gotten around to filling. Now, thanks to some digging through forgotten photos, these two become part of a printed composition.

The moral of this story is that a new context might give you a renewed interest in some images that would otherwise fall into oblivion. Take a little time and open one of those folders of neglected images. Wander the uncataloged stacks of your photo library. See what inspires you now. See what a little cross-referencing can do. Give something a chance to make it into print.


Mark said...

I love the idea!
Although I still don't have photoshop. I know, I'll get around to it one day.
Marc, I really do appreciate these lessons. Even if I have to read about scientific instruments in 18th Century France first. See how far I'm willing to go for help?
Your Friend, m.