Lessons learned from old tax records

My wife and I have been living in a small apartment for a few months, while we are looking for a new home, after selling our old place. It has been a real education on a number of levels. Some have been more personal/ philosophical and others have been more photographic/professional. Together this impromptu education has been an added benefit in what we knew was going to be an interesting experience. This week’s blog will explore the parts our experience that involve my current favorite topic, the changing nature of professional photography.

In previous blog entries, I have written about how much I learned going through my archive to decide which images to keep and which to destroy. Though much of that purging involved getting rid of thousands of duplicate slides, the process also required me to look back at thousands of prints and negatives. Collectively, it was quite an interesting opportunity to look back over my evolution as a photographer, as I have noted in previous blogs, such as:





During the process of actually moving the “stuff” that remained after the archival purge, we discovered something interesting. We found that about 15% of the boxes we were moving contained my photography books. Another 15% (approximately,) contained old tax records.

So, in the time since we moved, I have been in the process of selling my photo books. Organizing and boxing up that library for shipping, in order to sell 95% of it helped me understand how I looked at books. Many people, probably most, look at photography books as precious objects. On the other hand, I mostly look at books as little more than repositories of images. From my perspective, owning, packing and repeatedly moving books around made no sense whatsoever. In so many ways, the web has become THE repository of images. It is more efficient, faster, covers more styles/subjects and authors than any library of books ever could. I would certainly love to have held onto the books but frankly, they were a pain to move, I NEVER opened them/looked at them and so, all in all they meant little to me personally.

The other purge I worked on during the time since we moved involved going through old tax records. I ended up shredding most of the unimportant stuff and keeping a small percentage of records. As I was doing this I stumbled across few things that reminded me of how I USED to work as a photographer.

In purging my tax records, I found thousands and thousands of green “return receipt” post cards. These were attached to the outside of packages of images that I sent to folks who were recipients of sets of my original slides. They signed and returned those cards, so I had proof that they in fact had received my unique, originals. I had to pay a fee for that service and for the certified mail service that was required to get that return receipt. This ran at least $2 per set of images I sent out.

Today of course, images are delivered instantly, electronically with no worries about the potential for physical damage to the images themselves. My local post office workers got to know me well over the years that I used to send images the “old fashioned way.” They still are pleasant to me during my rare visits to the post office, but their business, like that of many photographers, has been very much transformed by the digital revolution.

In purging my tax records I also noted how I used to change long-distance phone service providers very frequently. I have old phone bills from the now defunct company, MCI. I found bills from other companies that also have not survived the brutal competition in the telecommunications industry. Not that I was aware of it at the time, but when it came to long distance phone service, I shopped mostly based on price. In my own small way, I was contributing to the Darwinian competition that completely reshaped the telephone service industry.

In the tax receipt purge, there was on thing I found that made me laugh the most, which was a series of bills from a company called Day-Timers. They made the printed calendar books that I used to keep in my wallet. When I used Day-Timers, I used to joke that, “I lived and died by my Day-Timer.” It was with me all the time and it was where I recorded everything that “mattered.” Of course, I kept my appointments in that book, but I also kept my list of “to-dos” as well as brainstorms, notes and inspirations that crossed my mind.

With the onset of computers, smart phones and PDAs, such physical, printed planners are on the way out. Day-Timers has recast its business so they now specialize in what they call “productivity tools,” which are essentially customizable calendars, albeit ones that are still printed with ink on paper and still carried in purses in wallets. Yes, like the Post Office, they will always have some loyal following, but when push comes to shove, printed calendars, like physically mailed image, are little more than road kill in the wake of the monstrous change brought on by the digital revolution.

Though it is rather late in the discussion, the discoveries I made during my tax receipt purge process got me to thinking about change and business (photographic and otherwise.) Should businesses like the Post Office and Day-Timers have seen the digital revolution coming? Could they have predicted the impact on their particular business models? I can offer no easy answers. But if the only constant in life is change, that suggests that those businesses like the myriad of others affected by the digital revolution, should have tried to see that change coming. That same looking forward is something we should be doing as photographers.

Not that I can offer any particularly profound insights on the future of commercial photography. As long-time readers know, I seem particularly caught up in digging through my past. Whether I am looking through a physical archive of images or tax receipts, I am comfortable looking at and learning from what I have done. Predicting what is next on the other hand, that is a harder task.

I will say the one thing that I know about the future. It is something I learned from the recent mining of my past. Whatever I was caught up in at any given moment along the way during my career was almost never what mattered in the long term. Just one example is that I spent five intensely focused years looking for the perfect staff photographer’s job at a newspaper. Yet I have now spent twenty-four years self-employed. AND, staff photographer jobs at newspapers are disappearing rapidly.

When photographers ponder the future, they should look back and see who else is road kill and who thrived, both inside the photography world and outside of it too. There are lessons to be learned there. I can not say what they are exactly, but I feel perfectly comfortable saying this: Despite all the noise and screaming, whatever you are caught up in at any given moment along the way is rarely what will really matter in the long term.

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