The power of paper

If all goes well, this will be the last blog entry prompted by the discoveries that I made during my recent spring-cleaning. As I was reviewing, editing and purging old documents, files and papers, I had a few more flashes of wisdom worthy of one last blog entry. Those insights reminded me of the value of my having studied the history of photography in college. Although I make my living as a commercial photographer, that education, focused on the liberal arts, rather than on a specific skill, continues to serve me well, thirty-odd years later.

As I was emptying file folder after file folder, I was reminded how I used to cut out and save photography related articles which caught my attention. Some of the publications that I used to read (and clip) were photo magazines but equally many were general interest publications, including Esquire and The New Yorker.

I kept other folders of clippings from ongoing research for projects that I was working on (or for projects I was thinking of initiating.) As I was clearing out files, I saw many old articles on globalization in South Asia, the Middle East conflict and the impact of pesticides on farm-workers, all of which were part of projects I completed. Information connected to some of my half-baked (or fully failed) projects was also in similar folders. Those reminded me that I have long believed that the best seminar I could ever give would be to walk through all the projects I have ever done that failed. The best part of the class would be a no-holds-barred self-analysis of why those projects failed.

In the last month, I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor in my office, paused in the midst of the spring-cleaning, as I read some of those same articles. One important difference struck me as I read both the research articles and the photography related ones. The quality of the writing and the insight offered in the non-photography related material generally stayed roughly the same. A clipping from the New York Times or Newsweek, from two years ago or two decades ago, was written at what appeared to me to be about the same quality standard.

The photography related articles from two decades ago that I read looked as if they were much, much better written. I was reading the work of great writers like A.D. Coleman, Ben Maddow, Bill Jay, Ingrid Sischy, etc. Each of those authors, and others whose work I was reading, had a command of the written word, an understanding of photography and a healthy dose of skepticism. The questions that they posed in the various pieces they wrote were questions they wanted to answer any way and they were taking us, the readers, a long for the ride. If you compare that with much of the writing on photography that goes out in contemporary mainstream publications, the new work pales by comparison. Much of what is written today has a breathless quality, with the writers panting as they highlight the amazing networking skills, career moves or technical abilities of the profiled photographer(s.)

In a world where every single featured photographer is an amazing master, no one is really any such thing. They can’t all be that great because things do not work that way in the real world, but then maybe those publications are not the real world either.

Among the other folders I found was one labeled simply “letters, good stuff.” I would look through that folder whenever I tired of reading how amazing other photographers were (and by default I was not.) What was in that folder as all the good news I ever received, be it a complement from a client or some other kind of affirmation. When I received those bits of good news I promptly dropped the original, printed item in that folder. It has fattened over the years, thankfully.

In the last couple years, I have looked in that folder less and less. Having survived the almost Darwinian competition of the commercial photography world, I know that I am indeed “good enough.” Still, seeing that folder there and thumbing through a few pages reminded me how that folder and its contents were an emotional lifesaver during the early, less steady steps in my career. I now know that I should scan those documents, especially for safekeeping and archiving purposes.

But the thought of scanning them made me pause. The final insight I had during this long, slow spring-cleaning process is that there is still something special, even magical, about actual documents. I know I am not the first to say that, but sitting there with all those papers was different than looking at them on a screen.

Yes, I try to use PDFs in most of my classes as often as I can, to save trees. And maybe it is the photo-historian in me, but in the case of the magazines, the letters and the other documents, their tangible form called out for special treatment. In the ones that I was handling the texture and the weight of the paper, the ink, the signature, the added notations, they all made the actual documents into something more than just something to convey information.

I know it does sound like I am some kind of Luddite, but that is not true. As a photographer, my career has been a process of constantly embracing new technologies. I have blogged often about my own struggles with, and adaptations to, new technologies. My guiding principle has been that the new technology has to be notably better at what at what it does as compared to the old technology it replaces.

Paper is an example of an amazing technology that certainly is being supplanted by newer systems, but it will never be fully displaced. The best photographs (documents and printed publications) have many qualities that merit preservation and appreciation. I know exactly what steps I am taking to archive and safely keep my images and documents as well as my audio and video recordings. What about you?

One response to “The power of paper”

  1. ouch…my past work is in a storage unit and new work online while I couch surf the world. This article puts flesh on my feelings about paper…*sigh*… if you remember me from your July05 workshop in Maine, I was trying to do an article on ‘home’. Still working on that illusive theme. One’s ‘paper’ history contributes much to one’s context and sense of home. To be without that paper can be disorienting to a 50 yr old artist who embraces the newer systems but remembers ‘paper’. Thank you for the article….Debby T.

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