Philosophy & Reflections

The (Lack of) Value in (my) Photography (and negatives) – In the Dark Shed – with John Whitmore (VIDEO)

February 24, 2020

A few months back I visited John Whitmore (@thedarkshed on Twitter). A the time, I was in the depths of my photography funk, so decided it might be nice to try and snap myself out of it by doing something a little bit outside of my usual shooting habits. The plan was to make a bit of a video of the two of us going out shooting some large format film then developing and printing it in his darkroom. We did exactly that too, but we also filmed a little bit of a conversation we had about the value I attribute to my photography… including a little bit of a chat about why I throw away my negatives.

Since that particular subject seems to cause a few people to feel a little bit faint/distressed/angry when I talked about it in a recent post about me owning my personal film workflow, I thought it might be interesting to share the conversation as a discrete video to the actual shooting/printing experience.

I must admit, listening/watching this back, I can detect just a touch of the grump I was in about photography at the time. For a start, John hardly gets a word in compared to my ranting/stream-of-consciousness waffling… And that’s not just a product of the edit. The unedited conversation went of for about 40 minutes and had all sorts of ranty-tangents from me. Anyone who’s met me, seen me in videos or heard me on podcasts is probably familiar with this trait of mine, but I mention it purely to prepare the uninitiated.

That said, as ineloquently as I articulate myself, I do manage to go into some detail about the parts of my photographic experience that I value and some that I don’t. With me being a “hybrid” photographer and John being a fully signed up and committed darkroom aficionado, he does manage to provide a useful counterpoint to my waffling too. I’m certain this isn’t going to convince many people that throwing away negatives is a good idea, but hopefully it might enlighten a few people a little bit more as to why I personally don’t see the value in keeping them.

The conversation starts with me talking about how the photography I value the most is the shots I take of my kids. This builds up to me breaking it to John that I bin my negs. If you don’t watch the full video, seeing his face and reaction when I do break it to him makes it worth watching that much of the video at least.

From there I then go on to talk about how I feel that as photographers there is a little bit of arrogance in the idea that believing there is innate value in our own work, and how I feel it has been beneficial to me to avoid that way of thinking. The topic of film being the ultimate backup, and how I feel that’s meaningless to me, of course, comes up too.

We then get onto the topic of ‘process’ and there is value inherent in the processes we undertake as well as the outcome itself. The need for value and if indeed there really is a need is next, then quite a bit about how me and John differ in the way we think despite the fact that we both shoot film. We then talk about some of the unnecessary ways we sometimes try and justify the things we do, and then ultimately, we come back to the idea that the value in what I do is, for me at least, often more in the experience than the outcome itself.

The latter point is quite interesting for me to reflect on now, as actually once I found myself less distracted by a feeling of grumpiness toward my work, it was indeed remembering how much I just needed to enjoy myself that has seen me clear of all that grumpiness… which was indeed the point of my recent post that started the conversation about binning negs in the first place. In short, as is usually the case, I had the answer to my problem all along, I just needed the chance to reflect on it/rediscover it.

But anyway, here’s the video:
(If you’re really keen, I have also released the 40-minute version to my patrons here)

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Okiman
    February 24, 2020 at 10:48 am

    It’s actually not about the value of someones work, but the intrinsic value of a physical object that digital file simply doesn’t have. So, throwing away film is like destroying say Mona Lisa on the premise that we have enough digital files representing it. Now, if the image itself has value or not is a different matter, but there is no denying (for most people) that original physical object (whatever the purpose of the object) is more valuable than its copy … the digital image. The confusion here is because we don’t talk about say old sword or vase, but pictures, and one can easily forget that their value is not in their use as images (as is not the use of a sword), but the very fact that they exist in physical reality. Digital on the other hand has value only in its use (a digital sword is only useful as a weapon in a game, not as a sword itself)….

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 24, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Hmm. I’m not sure about this.
      It’s a lot harder to make a physical sword from a digital version of a sword than it is to make a print of a photo from a digital file.
      Are you saying that digital originals (raw files, maybe) have less value than negatives then?

      • Reply
        Okiman
        February 25, 2020 at 10:26 am

        Absolutely. But do not forget – we ‘re not talking about content or image value here. Only about the object itself. And physical object has value (if nothing else – the material itself) , digital doesn’t … since it does not exist. Again, talking only about objects. But if we venture into content value then again we find that physical objects are more valuable, since they represent content original. Digital has no original since any copy of a raw file is identical to any other. So in effect, you are keeping copies of your images and (some of) their content value, but completely disregarding the fact that you had physical original – which is for me, the only real reason why I to shot film – having this tangible physical object, the negative, which has value to me, digital simply doesn’t.

      • Reply
        Mark Sperry
        March 15, 2020 at 11:05 pm

        Absolutely. Digital files require semi-constant care to even exist. They’re on some server, a drive, a disk. They require that you continually update their storage medium to compensate for the fact that digital storage is effectively not archival in any way. You could also argue that there is no such thing as an original digital file. A copy of a copy of a copy of a raw file-what value does that have vs the original Kodachrome of the Afghan Girl? Maybe some post-modern absolutists would argue that true ‘originals’ have no value vs some concept of “text”, but most people don’t think that way.

    • Reply
      Ben Felten
      February 25, 2020 at 7:25 am

      I think the Mona Lisa analogy is misleading exactly because the Mona Lisa has value (universal appeal – although if I’m honest I never really got it – historical value, and financial value). I don’t think Hamish is advocating for chucking out Cartier Bresson’s negatives even though most likely any book of his today is done from digital captures. An interesting analogy might be Vivian Meier. She clearly attributed little to no value to her negatives. She didn’t process half of what she shot and never printed as far as we can tell. And yet her work as discovered this last decade had great value to a lot of people (universal appeal, artistic value, historical value, and financial for some people…)

      • Reply
        John Whitmore
        February 27, 2020 at 11:33 am

        The big question about Vivian Meier’s work is would she have wanted that? I’m not so sure, but she never threw her negatives out so maybe, somewhere in the back of her mind she always thought they might live on beyond her….

  • Reply
    Dave Walker
    February 24, 2020 at 10:58 am

    Now I’m glad I asked if I could have the negatives for our wedding photos that you took :o)

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 24, 2020 at 12:46 pm

      Ha! Yeah, well that’s a little different

  • Reply
    DALE Willetts
    February 24, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    You ranty? grumpy? easily side tracked?… I wouldn’t say….. OOH look a puppy!
    Seriously though it’s interesting to listen to why you do what you do, can’t say I’d ever throw my negs away even if I didn’t have a darkroom. But that’s me and I’m not you and I guess that’s the point.
    Also Johns a lot bigger than you and you almost made him faint at least twice. You wouldn’t have been able to catch him and could have done him a serious injury mate 😉

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 27, 2020 at 9:58 am

      HA!

  • Reply
    C Thompson
    February 24, 2020 at 1:23 pm

    You may have noticed that when young children paint a picture, they have zero interest in the finished product. It is only the process that is of interest to them. They only want to understand the effects of what they do.
    Once the painting is over, they run off to experience something else.

  • Reply
    Kevin
    February 24, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    I haven’t watched the video yet but if you’ve identified something that holds you up and have found a way around it good for you! Photography is funny. We have a chance to make something fleeting permanent and throwing things away can seem a waste. However, just because we can doesn’t mean we should or we have to. It’s simply another case of 1 man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.

  • Reply
    Mike Hinkleman
    February 24, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    Hamish

    After reading some not all of your recent posts, it seems that you need a long break from photography including 35mmc. Try something different. Life is not work flow.

    Mike

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      February 27, 2020 at 9:59 am

      I think you missed the post after xmas where I talked about how much better I am feeling… ?

  • Reply
    sj
    February 24, 2020 at 5:26 pm

    I agree that often as photographers we put a lot of value into physical things, my mind was blown when I heard you say you throw your negs away! I suppose that in reality its no different than a digital photography, they have no physical tangible item like a negative, but even the money spent on the film makes me want to keep them. I spent the first 10 years of being serious about photography in a darkroom only and have only been hybrid for the last 3 or 4 years, I have never been a digital photographer beyond snaps at holidays or with my phone so I could never part with my negatives. Glad you are out of your funk, I have been there – didn’t pick up a camera and really shoot for over a year once. It was a really difficult time, and the idea of working on any aspect of photography gave me anxiety, it sucked. Thanks for the great video, and interesting article!

  • Reply
    David Alexander-Watts
    February 24, 2020 at 7:28 pm

    I have quite a good set of old family photographs, some of them Victorian and later. I’m grateful that my grandparents and parents saw the value and kept them but the negatives are long gone. Those photo books are your heirlooms, the digital files may not be. Look after them, your daughters will want to see them, as will future generations of your family.

  • Reply
    LASousa
    February 24, 2020 at 10:27 pm

    Hi Hamish, your children or wife or friends may find value in your digitized work some day. This may include images of things or places not including them as subjects. Within some images (certainly not all) is a thought process that reveals things about the photographer. This revelation can also arise from a body of work as a whole. The means to the end is tangential. When I choose to shoot film it is because I enjoy doing so (usually) and I like the results (sometimes). There is nothing like employing a beautiful and properly functioning film camera. Frustration crops up in digital and film shooting when I should not have a camera in my hands from being distracted or tired etc. The most important thing is I enjoy what for me is a hobby that has morphed into a life passion. For that passion I am thankful despite the inevitable bumps and bruises from mistakes or lack of inspiration. I appreciate your search for meaning and all you do for the photography community (immense contribution), but we are not on the same page on this score. Cheers, Louis.

  • Reply
    Dan J Castelli
    February 25, 2020 at 12:02 am

    Hi Hamish,
    I’ve been crawling uphill from a photography funk myself…I hit bottom about 3 years ago. Lots of self-evaluation, a whole lot of reading, and looking at what I suppose I could call ‘my style.’ I’m not fully out of it, but I’m closer to leveling out than I was a few months ago. Tougher on me because I’m 68 and you guys are a bit younger. I don’t have lots of wiggle room to futz about. But, and it’s a big but, I never stopped shooting/developing/printing. I shot lots of crap but there were some gems. Lower output, but more ‘keepers.’ Because everyone’s demon is different, everyone’s way out is different. Keep moving forward. Your work will be better when you’re done.

    I look forward to your continued articles/photographs and the contributions the photographers post.

    May I suggest a book? “Celebrating The Negative” by John Loengard, former editor of LIFE Magazine. He gives an interesting point of view on negatives and their worth.

    Thanks for letting me share my two cents.

    Dan

    • Reply
      John Whitmore
      February 27, 2020 at 11:35 am

      Just ordered the book, thanks for the suggestion!

  • Reply
    Brett Stewart
    February 25, 2020 at 12:50 am

    Retiring to a darkroom is now my goal in life. I really enjoyed this video, thanks Hamish

  • Reply
    Ben Felten
    February 25, 2020 at 7:20 am

    Interestingly, I’m not that shocked by you chucking your negatives. I keep mine with the idea that I’ll want to print some of them someday, and I suspect that the process of going through the negatives if/when I have a darkroom would be different to the process of me flicking through the files on Lightroom. But that’s most likely a fantasy anyway.

    I find the subject of the intrinsic value of an image fascinating though. Putting aside the truly personal stuff (family, places that mean something specific to you) shooting an image that has universal appeal is really hard (and I’d argue, in most instances happy accidents). You examples of waterfalls is a really good one. I love doing long exposure shots, and I’ve shot some that I think are really good, but each and every one of them has been done over and over. I’m wondering if that’s not part of the unconscious appeal of street for a lot of photography enthusiasts : whatever you shoot, there’s a good chance no one ever did that exact shot ever before. But that’s the satisfaction of the photographer, doesn’t make the pictures any more universally appealing.

    I think the crazy enthusiasm I have for my current photography project (the textures double exposures) is that I’ve seen very little out there that looks like what I’m doing. And the response of people looking at the photos has been very polarized : a lot of enthusiasm, and a lot of WTF is that.

    • Reply
      Huss
      February 26, 2020 at 4:51 pm

      That is some fantastic work Ben. Love Fertile Hair.

      Back to Hamish… the problem with being in a rut is doing the same mundane thing. You need to come up with a concept, a project, an idea.
      If it becomes a slog, well, there’s no fun in that is there? Time to move along.

  • Reply
    JamesW
    February 25, 2020 at 3:40 pm

    Okay, here I go again…. Intrinsic value is vested in the property itself. A 10 pound note has little intrinsic value, pennies maybe. But people perceive it to have value, about 10 pounds would you believe, and as long as we all subscribe to that belief, we all agree to get along. And then someone starts thinking, like Hamish, that not everything has the same value to all. I’m fairly certain that his negs have little intrinsic value, even if I could recycle the base materials. The same negs have little extrinsic value to me as well. Those aren’t images of my kids after all. They’re images of his kids, and if all he wants is the images, then it’s the images that have the value, not the medium used to capture them. Intrinsic value is absolute, extrinsic is subjective.
    And there’s the rub…. My values are mine, not anyone else’s. I operate within my framework, not anyone else’s. Hamish’s values might be different, outlandish to some, but we all live according to our own values. Let all march to the drumbeat they hear, they might be hearing a different drummer. (Thoreau.)

  • Reply
    Gary Stefano
    February 26, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    In 2020 almost every possible photo is already taken and, overall, the photographs are abundant and cheap.
    So it’s like discussing whether I should sleep with my beard over the blanket or under it.

    • Reply
      Huss
      February 27, 2020 at 10:14 pm

      That’s like claiming every book has been written.

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