Can Destruction of Photographs Be As Virtuous As Archiving?

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by ReginaldSMith, Jul 3, 2018.

  1. ReginaldSMith

    ReginaldSMith Subscriber

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    Preservation and archiving is a common topic of photographers. The thousand year print, the permanent digital storage, backup strategies, and leaving a legacy in photographs are all aimed at the idea that permanence through time is a virtue. But is it always a virtue? Is there a case to be made that destruction of images, perhaps upon death, can also be a virtue?

    A photograph is a double edged sword. While it purports to preserve history, it can also be preserving an unfair or unjust version of history. For example, in one's life of say, eighty-odd years, suppose the only photograph in existence captures a moment of fear, grief, anger, or depression? Is that 1/250th of a second a reasonable history of a life that otherwise was fearless, happy, content and joyous? Does the photo do a grave injustice to that person because photographs carry such weight as informal proof? Photographic subjects often have no formal say about this treatment, and surely no practical recourse.

    Photographs, as stand-ins for truth, reality and history, can also become anchors and severely retard progress: "Here's how it was. Here's how it has always been. Here's how it should be now." An analogy that comes to mind is the "rehabilitated convict" who must carry the records around his virtual neck for pretty much the rest of his life. "Once a criminal always a criminal." As such, photographic records can so burden a society that it freezes them in time.

    Consume some war photographs and you may get horrified at the prospect of war. Consume enough of them and you very well might get de-sensitized to the same horrors. "The world is always at war. War is normal."

    Photographs of places, or objects in places are certainly no substitute for the place or object, of course. I saw my first picture of Mount Rushmore when I was around 8 years old. I saw dozens (hundreds?) more through life, and just a year ago at age 69, I went to Mount Rushmore and looked at it. I was so underwhelmed I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. It wasn't simply a case of being unimpressed with a physical thing, it was a case of comparing the perceptions derived from photographs to the perceptions of the object as itself. The disconnect was enormous. Although the photographs I had seen were miniature in scale to the object, upon viewing, the reverse impression took hold - the object seemed tiny compared to the impression gained from the images. I tried, but could not conjure an impression that did not include my previous exposure to the photographs.

    Photographs, with their countless useful purposes, might also contain a seed of destruction by tying all of humanity to a heavy, permanent, and often false history. Although this might also be said of painting, there's no comparison whatsoever of the number of paintings to the number of photographs.

    There is no practical implementation to starting a history fresh with no photographic weight, but it can perhaps become a personal virtue (in the sense that prayer or meditation is considered a virtue) to "will your photographs to the same disposition as your physical presence." One metaphor would be, "leave no trace," which is a kind of hiker's anthem.
     
  2. Bruce Walker

    Bruce Walker Member

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    >>> Photographs, as stand-ins for truth, reality and history

    That, for me, is the fallacy that spikes your thesis. Nobody should be interpreting photographs in that way--if they do, it's on them. Photographs are understood to be only selectively truthful. They are art and open to interpretation, re-interpretation, interpolation, ...

    And what if we destroyed all our photographs when we die? Photography itself would struggle to move forward and be relevant. We all enjoy the fruits of our predecessors. We would all be much poorer if Man Ray had destroyed his work, for example. We'd just keep on reinventing the basics over and again.
     
  3. Bill Burk

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    While I think it's important to only show your best photography, I also think it's important to preserve everything you possibly can.

    Then, much later in life, time will have made all the rest more valuable - and in case you personally become a significant artist of your time, there will be a rich legacy.

    Plus, it's helpful when putting together timelines and stories about your life... If only the best were preserved at that point you would have significant gaps.

    I recently looked over some film I had taken about 30 years ago. At the time, I only "accepted" one shot as "good" but there are about seven shots taken that day. In the background was a whiteboard with some writing on it. Though the other shots are not as good, because they were taken with various compositions they help piece together what was written on the wall. I handed the camera to somebody who took a terribly out of focus picture of me and my friends, but it helps me see who was there.
     
  4. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    i often times destroy negatives after i make a print, and along those lines have had negatives
    destroyed by security offices when people appeared in images doing things that the organization didn't
    want preserved, or QA people spot checking newspapers as they come off a press ( they looked like they were hanging out reading
    the paperr ) or a political figure making an unflattering grimmace as they "speeched" ... not sure if it is called destruction or editing though.
     
  5. slackercrurster

    slackercrurster Member

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    For my own work, I only destroy bad work or work prints, if I can't recycle em. I used to have an artist that used my work prints to make collages. But he moved away.

    As a curator and archivist for a large photo and film archive I dislike trashing good or historic photos. I acquired a large collection of sex photos from the 1950s / 60s. A couple of the guys looked underage, so I shredded them.
     
  6. Eric Rose

    Eric Rose Subscriber

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    Family photos will be passed on to my kids. All my personal photography will be destroyed upon my death.
     
  7. Sirius Glass

    Sirius Glass Subscriber

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    A flawed thesis. We know from logic a false or faulty thesis and a true conclusion is false logic. Also we know from logic a false or faulty thesis and a false conclusion is false logic. So either way whatever is stated after the first post is false logic. What a terrible waste of bandwidth.
     
  8. jtk

    jtk Subscriber

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    Virtuous? Hmmm. For me it's more virtuous to communicate my photo images directly and simply, if telegraphic sometimes. Better than to inflict others with my every subtle written or photo concept rather than editing my work out of respect for them. "Respect for them" is virtuous, IMO. My work is always edited harshly by me so a lot of destruction is just the way things work.

    fwiw I consider "prayer and meditation" to be methods, perhaps responsibilities, rather than virtues. Same as "leave no trace." ymmv
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2018
  9. faberryman

    faberryman Subscriber

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    Virtue can be a complex concept. Are we working with the dictionary meaning ("behavior showing high moral standards") or something else? If we use the dictionary meaning, you are going to have to define the rubric for discussing morals, another quagmire. Usually this would not be necessary, but given recent threads, I would just as soon not be ridiculed again for being lowbrow by participating.
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2018
  10. jtk

    jtk Subscriber

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    I've known a couple of fine photographers, as well as a very financially successful (and appealing to me) painter, who burned everything in order to allow important changes in their lives. Something like baptism or fire walking. They seemed relieved or even a little proud.
     
  11. faberryman

    faberryman Subscriber

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    Have you made provision for that, or are you going to do it while you are still able? Death can strike quickly.
     
  12. Eric Rose

    Eric Rose Subscriber

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    So true. I guess I need to add that to my will. My wife knows my wishes but unless it's in writing that doesn't mean jack.
     
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    ReginaldSMith

    ReginaldSMith Subscriber

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    I think this depends. For the knowledgeable, your comment is more true than for the masses. Photos imply truth somewhat implicitly. Even though of late there is chatter about fake news and fake photos, the power of photos to imply a truth or a reality is established.
     
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    ReginaldSMith

    ReginaldSMith Subscriber

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    You are only the second person I know of who has this position. I haven't decided, but I am leaning toward the same or similar idea. Of course, there is the issue of knowing when to do it, and some practical matters like that. But at least conceptually, I am close to being there.

    For one thing, I don't believe in 'after lives' of any meaningful sort, so the idea of a "legacy" has no meaning for me. For the other reason, I am becoming very aware personally that some photos I have inherited from others are laden with both pluses and minuses. Two of the significant minuses are 1) I feel as though I was handed a responsibility for further preservation that I didn't ask for. 2) Some of the photos raise negative feelings that I would like to suppose might not exist outside the photograph.

    Therefore, I can project that whomever gets stuck with my photographic pile, might very well experience similar or worse feelings. In which case, I'd be doing them a disservice from the grave.

    Thanks for that post.
     
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    ReginaldSMith

    ReginaldSMith Subscriber

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    And that story reminds of this historical story. In the 1988(?) Berkeley fire, which destroyed around 2500 homes in the area, a well-known photographer was interviewed in the papers. He had lost many thousands of negatives - years of work. He was very sanguine and said to the effect that it was a chance to start fresh with new ideas and new challenges. My own personal interpretation of his comments was maybe the body of work had become an actual burden on creativity. Just speculation.
     
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    ReginaldSMith

    ReginaldSMith Subscriber

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    Virtue

    People should use the widest interpretation they like as to what is virtuous. I might have also replaced that with "doing a good thing for humanity."

    The idea arises because it is clear that humanity is headed for self destruction. Although we are proud of human intelligence and consciousness, it isn't leading to a good end. One idea is that we are in a rut created by history itself. As though it was an anchor holding us down.
     
  18. Theo Sulphate

    Theo Sulphate Subscriber

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    On the opposite end, I have destroyed photographs that did depict a true situation and I did not want that truth to persist or extend into the future. By destroying the photo, I denied the existence of that truth and hoped I would be able to replace that image in the future with a reality more to my liking.

    Absolutely correct. A good example.
     
  19. Eric Rose

    Eric Rose Subscriber

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    My mother burned everything that was her history just before she died. If I have my way all my negs and transparencies will be cremated along with me. The digi files residing on hard drives will be smashed. I have several reasons. Some like Mr. Smith's, don't want to burden my kids and the other I don't want anyone to profit from them after I am dead. If people don't want to buy them now when I can benefit from the money, well then f'm when I'm dead.
     
  20. faberryman

    faberryman Subscriber

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    I don't think I would be so presumptuous as to ascribe virtue, however you care to define it, to something as inconsequential to others as a decision to either keep or throw away my photographs.
     
  21. Bill Burk

    Bill Burk Subscriber

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    My wife often talks of the day her dad tossed the family photos in the trash shortly after her mom’s passing. My brother-in-law caught them and prevented a “catastrophe”. The photos are important- keep them.
     
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    ReginaldSMith

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    Yes, well said. There countless varieties and forms of injustice that lie documented in photos, and by and large, the various "actors" (or their families and heirs) in those photos have no say in their disposition. I feel that such is an unfairness that can amount to a lot of buildup of let's say, "bad karma."

    I'm sure all of us have experience the scene where a family member or friends says, "Oh crap! You STILL have that horrible picture of me? Get rid of that!" I have been on both sides of that one. And, I understand the notion of being "violated" (please note the quotes) and wishing it didn't exist.
     
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    ReginaldSMith

    ReginaldSMith Subscriber

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    I seriously love the boldness of that sentiment. I find it very uplifting. It's a slightly different cause than I proposed, but every bit as interesting.
     
  24. awty

    awty Subscriber

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    All the Vivian Maier'ites must leave there treasured pictures in the attic so someone can come along and discover there previously unnoticed works and immortalize them forever.
    Last time I was on my death bed I told my wife not to throw out my gear from this and other hobbies as it was worth $$$, perhaps I disclosed too much information, cause I survived and she was wondering why that money wasnt used on other things, ha. Couldn't careless about any of my things I make, think its presumptuous that anyone else would care either.
     
  25. Jim Jones

    Jim Jones Subscriber

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    When I die, the value of the photographs left behind will be much decreased because the understanding of those images will also be lost. However, they may have some value, as do the photographs my deceased parents have to me and perhaps the younger generations. I'll leave to them the decision to keep or destroy what may sometime interest them. Certainly some have value to historians interested in long gone eras.
     
  26. Patrick Robert James

    Patrick Robert James Subscriber

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    I have pretty much the same sympathies as Eric. I think I've done some nice stuff in my life. If dealers don't want it now, why should they be able to profit from it later? I don't have any kids either. I think if I am still no one as I get closer to the end, it will go up in smoke. I already cull the herd so to speak from time to time. A few years ago I threw away I don't know how many prints. I filled a garbage can 3/4 of the way. I had a hard time rolling it so heavy it was. I probably have a few thousand prints left in boxes. Easy enough for anyone to chuck after I'm gone if I don't get to it first. The family pictures are kept separate.
     
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