Tossing the Negatives

I’m going to be moving soon, so I’m in the midst of that dreaded process known as packing. I’m not boxing up all my things, however. Old clothes are going to charity. Old papers are getting recycled. Office supplies I bought in 1986 and never used are going in the trash. This purging is not just about saving space. It’s about moving on. To this end, I made a decision that I would have considered unthinkable even a few years ago: I’m tossing all my old photographic negatives and slides.

At one point in my life, I was serious about photography. Starting in my teens, I took over the elaborate darkroom set up by my father, a talented and prolific amateur photographer. Between the two of us, we amassed a huge collection of black and white negatives and Kodachrome slides. I studied photography in college, as well as at the Maine Photographic Workshop. It was there that I honed my art with some of world’s most accomplished photographers.

Since the eighties, I’ve carted dozens of ring binders of photographic material to various apartments and houses, where they have gathered dust on the shelves—a whispering reminder that I need to “do something with my photography.” I haven’t. Life and career got in the way. In the meantime, photography became a less distinctive talent, disrupted by digital imaging and the iPhone. What was once a complex craft is now a lazy, push-button capability sitting in a billion pockets.

I eventually had a lab scan several thousand of the best images. I created Shutterfly photo books for myself and my family. I put together a tribute to my father’s most impressive work, as well as a book of shots that were of interest to my hometown’s public library. At that point, there was no reason for me to hang on to the negatives, but I kept them, nonetheless. Shouldn’t I “do something” more with them?

Getting to the answer, “No, there isn’t anything more to do with the negatives,” was prolonged and more painful than it should have been. I knew I should get rid of them, but part of me still dreamt that I would pull some remarkable artistic achievement out of the old 35-millimeter film strips. This was a ridiculous fantasy. What really needed to be thrown in the trash was an obsolete and maladaptive piece of my ego.

I had to face the fact that, even as I close in on age 60, part of me was still caught up in the college application mindset. Hugh is not just a great student, he also plays the violin, writes for the school magazine AND does photography. Gotta be an overachieving polymath if you want to get into the good schools.

I got into the school, but that way of thinking never went away. So, here we are, in 2022, and it’s finally time to stop pining away for recognition for my photographic accomplishments. Yes, I’m proud of my photography…that I did over 30 years ago. There isn’t going to be a Whitney Retrospective of my work. I haven’t put the time and effort into cultivating my craft for three decades. Enough already. Give it up. Yet, there the negatives sat, waiting for me to do something with them. What I’ve decided to do is throw them out.

The decision also means coming to terms with how much time I have left to undertake a serious creative project like resurrecting my photography. I hope I have a lot more life left to live, but I’m at an age when I realize I don’t have unlimited time to do everything I want. There are some books I want to write. That’s more than enough to occupy my free time, if I want them to be good. I won’t be setting up a darkroom or buying expensive digital scanning and printing equipment.

Next up is the decision regarding hours of Super-8 film I shot in the eighties. This should be easier, in theory. Not only do I lack the time, skills or equipment I need to make the kind of autobiographical essay documentary that I have in mind, that creative format has been dead for years.

My college filmmaking professor, Ross McElwee, made a wonderful documentary called “Sherman’s March,” which brilliantly captured the post hippie era. It was a rare commercial hit for a cinema verité film. Today, there are tens of millions of such films on YouTube. Do I want to spend time and money to create my own disposable, forgettable contribution to this infinite video repository? My life isn’t that interesting. The footage isn’t that good. Yet, the reels of film will be making the move. I have it in mind at least to watch it all and see if there’s anything worth preserving. Chances are, there won’t be, but I still feel the need to investigate.

When I carried the first batch of negatives to the curb a few days ago and watched them got taken away by the garbage truck, I thought I would feel regret. Instead, I felt relief. I am finally releasing myself from an out-of-date way of seeing myself. I am on the path to more rewarding and realistic achievements, should I choose to pursue them.