Keep and Don't Delete – a Furnace for Your Thoughts

MarcoPoloFurnace_5332, originally uploaded by carolsLittleWorld.

Today’s topic of discussion is about revisiting work. This image was actually shot in 2005, about this time of year in fact. I believe it was November of 2005 when I first visited Venice. This shot is actually a Lensbaby shot of one of the furnaces on the Venetian island of Murano. Yes, that’s the famous island where “Murano Glass” comes from in case you did not know (or could not figure that out.) These “furnace” style buildings are actually the places there they go to blow the glass. (So it really is, hot like a “furnace” in there.)

But this really isn’t about the furnace. Or Venice. Or Murano. Or even the glass. It’s about revisiting work. Going back, looking through old slides. Checking out old work. Seeing anew with a fresh eye.

This is something I don’t do enough, to be honest with you. I’m almost 100% certain that there are a lot of “old gems” in my stash of shots. Somewhere, in my hard drive, along with the recipe for a really good pot roast and possibly the location of that last lost sock coming from the clothes dryer, there are some great photos lurking. And I don’t even have to go out of the house to get them! In fact, I could sit here in my pj’s and fish them out, if I were so-inclined.

The problem is, like most others, I’m always obsessed with the new. I want everything newfangled. I want to shoot new stuff, to go out and find new treasures. I want to capture new, raw material and fill up those spiffy shiny new Compact Flash cards (oh, how you know how I love to run out of Compact Flash cards. Sadly, even the shiny new ones don’t stay new for long around the likes of me.)

The trouble with shooting all new stuff all of the time is that it’s a never ending stream of work and you don’t always have time to process it. We shoot so much as photographers that we don’t always have time to “mentally” process the work, to ask ourselves those important questions. What are we doing with this? Where are we going with this? How is this working? It’s all just shoot more, more, more, better, faster, now. Oh, I have this new lens I want to try out, here let me…

Revising old work has a big advantage. There’s an old saying that, “time heals all wounds.” While that may be true, it’s also true that time works to an advantage for photographers. In many cases, time can help you distance yourself (emotionally) from the work. What I mean by that is, when I was fresh off the boat from Venice, my mind was full of “recent memories” of Venice. I still had the taste of the food in my mouth, I remembered (vividly) the people I saw there, the things I experienced. My brain was full of these “recent memories.” Over time, these memories fade and get pushed back, perhaps replaced by new, more recent trips, or just relegated to the back of the “long-term memory” pile (along with that recipe for pot roast and, I’m sure, more than a few others things I probably should just forget.)

With that time, with that distance, with the emotional detachment comes a critical eye.

What I mean by that is that now, at this very time, I can honest sit down and critique my Venice work. I can look at it and process it and approach it with a fresh eye. I don’t have the same emotions running through my veins. I don’t remember (or don’t remember quite as vividly) the fresh taste of pasta or the fresh smell of the incense burning in the cathedrals. I’ve pushed some of those experiences away and can now (more freely) concentrate on the work. The work itself sits before me more barren and I’m able to wrap my head around it better somehow, now that all of those other memories are slightly gone or just pushed back more into the recesses of my thoughts.

There’s also less pressure, right? I mean, I don’t *have* to produce ten or twenty or whatever perfectly composted beautifully exposed images of Venice on the spot, in order to satisfy some burning need of the Internet or the gallery owners who carry my work or the patron who heard I just got back from…and wants some images for his new summer home. No, they’ve all had their fill of “Venice” from me eons ago and have now moved on (of course, they are now demanding work from Iceland or points next in travels on my list, so maybe this works against me too but, you know, if I can sneak in an upload or two from “old” Venice, hey, more power to me, right?)

That emotional detachment though, that’s really powerful stuff. At least for me, I can really have a fresh eye on things. I actually find it hard to work on images sometimes while I am traveling. It happened to me in Iceland anyway. I reached a point where I had shot so much, I had so many experiences, and the place was so *different* I just couldn’t mentally process it anymore. I just couldn’t do it. I reached a point where I just did not want to look at one more of my images from Iceland at all, at least not until the plane touched back in JFK. Now, of course, I’m itching to go back and visit Iceland again because, as we all know, it’s a wonderful country. But that detachment? Yes, that feeling stays with me. I’m sure that, a few years from now, I’ll be pulling something out of my Iceland shots and thinking, “Damn! Why didn’t I see this back two years ago when I was there.” Unfortunately, this is how the process sometimes works and we have to accept it. While I’m on location, of course, I always keep shooting but I don’t always like to shoot, process, post to the Internets so quickly. Sometimes, I like my images, like my thoughts too, to stew for a little bit longer.

As a teacher, I encourage my students to never throw anything out. Never, ever delete shots. Don’t delete off the card, don’t delete off the hard drive, just don’t, ok? Hard drives are cheap. The price of that “fresh eye” that comes from leaving stuff in a drawer for years and then re-discovering it as new? Yeah, that’s really expensive and hard to come by. Trust me on that one.

In the days of film, we used to say that “film was cheap” and it was. Or it wasn’t. It was actually kind of expensive in hindsight but not as expensive as your time and energy and effort that goes into crafting work. Getting the shot? Yeah, that’s priceless compared to the cost of the film. That comes at a steep price and, sometimes, you have to get it when you can. That’s why I recommend you never delete and always plan on re-visiting.

Another thing that might happen to you is that, not only do your loose an emotional attachment to the work, but your tastes change over the years. What you are shooting now you might not be shooting two years from now. Many photographers look back upon their old work and cringe. You might think this is a good reason to delete things too but again, here, you’d be wrong. It isn’t. The “going back and cringing” part, you see, that’s part of artistic development. We all grow as artists. Yes, it might be true that my images from two years ago or five years ago or, in this case, 2005 don’t look all *that* different from my images of today but stop and think about this for a minute. I’ve been shooting for more than 20 years. At this point in my artistic development, changes happen much more gradually. I’m not going to change overnight, it might take me decades. Somebody who just picked up a camera? Yeah, their work on Tuesday might look very different from their work on Thursday. That’s just how it goes. We learn faster and more in the beginning. It’s stacked that way for a reason. In a way, that’s sort of lucky, otherwise we’d never get good at anything quickly enough. But we do still learn and continue to learn. I’m always learning and growing as an artist. Yes, even me, she who has been shooting for 20+ years can still see things with a fresh eye, especially when I add new life experiences into the mix. We all change as people too and, what we once saw as important yesterday, hey, tomorrow, not so much.

If all of that weren’t enough, things like Photoshop and our computers change at a rapid pace too. What you can do today in Photoshop was unimaginable a few years ago and, I’m fairly certain about this, what we’ll be able to do tomorrow or next week or even five years from now is going to drastically change as well. There’s another reason to “keep and don’t delete” your work, you don’t even know what “your work” will look like or what you’ll be able to do with it just a few years from now.

A lot of folks, myself included, work with alternative process stuff. We bleach prints. We print on odd papers. We collage. Do encaustics. This is another reason to never delete. That big “mistake” shot of 2009 might just morph itself into your best encaustic piece or a really great element for a collage. You never know when you’re going to take up doing collage or encaustics or whatever and you never know what raw materials you might need at some point in the future. As far as photography goes, it pays to be a sort of “image pack rat” and just keep everything. You thought about taking the picture, pulling the trigger on that shutter button for a reason. That reason didn’t change. It’s still there. You might as well keep the picture too, right? Even those shots you maybe took by accident, hey, sometimes accidents happen for a reason. I’m a firm believer in that. You get the images you’re supposed to get, when you are supposed to get them. Sometimes this is even out of our control. I often feel like there is an endless stream of images flying by in the universe and I stop to “pluck out” the lucky ones I’m supposed to get, nothing more, nothing less. If you think of each one as a gift, you don’t want to delete any of them as well you shouldn’t. They were given to you for a reason maybe you just don’t know what that reason is quite yet. Over time, things like this tend to become more clear.

So, for all these reasons and more, I hope you’ll reconsider deleting your images. I hope you’ll stop and think about this, maybe even just think a little bit more before removing them. And I certainly hope you’ll revisit some of your older images. Got an image from 2005 that you like? The digital camera craze has been around for a few years now and, for those who have been shooting through this time, they now have quite a stash, a backlog of sorts, of images. Look through them and tell me what you think, show me what you find. Dig out your “old furnace” and show me what you’ve got. Who knows? It just might be a little lost gem you can now treasure for years going forward.

Until next time…

1 Comment

  1. Great Grandma Lin
    December 1, 2011 / 2:59 pm

    I've started doing this with my writing, keeping the various revisions of poems. sometimes newer isn't better. my blog gives me a place to post my writings through the years.

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