The Great Purge
By Jim Lewis
24 Mar 2013
I don't think that most photographers take the funeral of their old work as romantically as I did, but I knew it was time. When one has been shooting for nearly 20 years, the photos from that Day 1 begin to add up. Worse, Day 1 wasn't so pretty as similar to Day 365. I didn't see it then, but with older and wiser eyes, I see it now. It's nothing to be afraid of...we have to suck before we get better. The problem with the days of film and prints, the suckiness tends to stick around unless you do something about it. It was time for these awful relics of an erstwhile amateur photog to go.
A true pro leaves his/her feelings out of it, and that's how I started off. My old pictures, with a few rare exceptions, were awful for different reasons that I could criticize newbie photogs for today. Bad lighting, bad posing, bad models...all equalizing to a sucky photographer thinking he was pretty good at the time. I also had the thought that if I kicked tomorrow, I didn't want to leave my kids to go through all the crap quality models clothed/half nude.... ok, fine...a lot of them nude.... prints in horror of what kind of low quality voyeur their father was. Sure, I had good intentions at the time to make a great photograph...I just didn't realize that many these images would not shine as time passed. Again, one should strive to improve but the road there is miserable and my path had the worse scenery.
So, as I basically alluded, I would hit these many thousands and thousands of pics from hundreds of shoots with a solid, determined mission in mind...to purge the awful and the embarrassing, and only keep what would catch my eye as worthy, and with a hardened professional heart this should be a breeze.
It wasn't. For a few reasons.
First, volume. I shot nearly all negatives and made prints for each shoot, so I would have leeway on the f-stop range. (I hated slides anyway.) In silent bravado, I smirked that I had achieved what many guys dream about....becoming a photographer of women. I stopped smirking when I realize that the amount of photos I accumulated would not take mere hours but days to go through. I also cringed in doing the back-of-envelope math when I began to calculate the probably tens of thousands of dollars spent on film and developing about to get trashed. The volume also eliminated the original idea of burning all these prints and negatives in my backyard. A huge bon fire was needed and none were safely available, at least that wouldn't burn down my house in the process with all the orange ashes in the air.
Second, the heart began to soften as I went through each shoot. I had not intended to wax poetic over some of these crummy photos, but I remembered every shoot, and every model that worked hard for this lousy amateur. Even better, how they loved those same crummy pictures when I gave them copies. Maybe they also realized as they moved on I was no damned good at the time, but back then, they felt like a star when they got their pictures. That went a long way for this former GWC (Guy With Camera).
Third, I looked at every picture when I should have just blindly dumped them all. Then I parsed some shoots, and kept some prints that came out nice and dumped the rest, but kept the negs. A massive purge doesn't need a system that caters to the minutia, but there I was, doing just that.
Along the while of putting an end to some of my worst creations, a funny thing happened. These pictures I created, due to their out of date look and lack of photographic quality in general, taught me one last lesson.
I began to rationalize and reflect on my choices as to why some shoots and/or particular photos were trashed and others boxed and kept.
I noticed quality models, no matter how awful the pics were, survived the Purge. It affirmed what I have been teaching photographers for years...shoot with the best faces, and your pictures will be better and stand a higher chance of becoming immortalized. This mantra proved to be true, as the higher quality models stuck around while the ones I thought then were of quality but I would never shoot today, were purged. "What was I thinking" was a common repeated theme.
I also kept shoots or pictures with a story that made the shoot personal. My dear friends, the Barber Twins, of which one twin passed away - I kept all their pictures without exception, whether low quality, wearing clothes or not. (They really couldn't make me take a bad picture anyway.) A model named Heather, whom I had a great shoot with noticeable higher quality results, developed breast cancer later on in life. I wondered where she was and if she made it? I kept her pictures. On the flip side, there were models with whom I simply fell in love with their look at the time and shot reams and reams of prints. They all went to the heap as I now wondered what I ever saw in their look. My first shoot...ugh, how awful...ok, fine...I guess I can keep a few that won't make my children aghast. Hopefully. Maybe they'll understand. Maybe.
Two days later, the Great Purge was finished with literally thousands of prints and negatives perishing in pure Darwinian fashion. They'll be buried and probably dug up 500 years from now where the masses can laugh at me and my heirs will cower in shame. More than likely, my earliest works of disasters will be part of this great Earth's landfills forevermore.
Then suddenly and without warning, those damned old and gold Kodak Photo CDs ruthlessly appeared. Argh, dammit...fine, another day for those.
Maybe I should instead take a silent bow of respect to those jalopy images of old, and give a bit of thanks to every model who took a chance in getting in front of my lens, no matter if she was a good model or not. I appreciate the chance we had to create together, and to teach me the wonderment of what I could be if I got out of my own way photographically. Maybe I still might do that one day.
Lastly, I did receive an unexpected gift from these dear, departing images...a gift that produced a multitude of memories of a younger man who wanted to be a photographer. As I tossed out the last bag, I noticed a faint scent on my fingertips but immediately knew what it was. Only a true photographer can become nostalgic over that time lost scent of darkroom chemicals, the very same that used to be all over my hands when I left the darkroom, which now had crept up one last time on these aging hands when going through my prints to purge. It was a scent that had not struck my senses in many years, not since I left the dark room that one, unbeknownst last time.
A worthy and appropriate goodbye.
I grinned. Maybe those pictures weren't so bad after all.
** note: photo is Purge survivor - Nikki **