To delete or not to delete, that is the question….

Vincent Laforet’s Blog:


So back to deleting – sorry – I’ve gotten off target a little here. Without exception, every time I’ve gone back to do an edit – whether it’s after a 15 minute break, a 15 hour brake, a 15 day break or a 15 month break – my view of what images matter has dramatically changed. So much so – that I just can’t justify deleting images (unless they’re completely out of focus, or over exposed or under exposed beyond recovery (but hey – who knows what software they’ll write in 20 years that could potentially fix those images – you see where I’m going…???)

Think about a lot of the classic images we look at that were shot 20, 50 or 100 years ago – while some are true classics, let’s be honest: some of them really weren’t that spectacular at all when they were shot. But with time – even the most banal image – is fascinating to look at. I love to look at what people were wearing in the 1920s or what the streets looked like in New York City, how the signs in front of stores were hand painted etc. And the same will be true of what you’re photographing today – that’s a lesson my father taught me very early on – and one that I’ve never forgotten – and a big part of why I don’t delete anything if I can help it.

I’ve been meaning to get to this issue for a bit, and finally getting there. It’s a tough call.

I find myself on the other side of this fence for the most part, and the reality of the “keep it in case” mentality has really struck home recently.

As I’ve mentioned, my dad died in June, and I’ve been very involved with helping Mom get set up to move forward living alone and getting the estate issues worked out. I’ve also taken on the responsibility for going through and figuring out what to do with Dad’s stuff. This has involved multiple trips down to LA. Last trip down, I spent two days going through and clearing out dad’s office, pulling together his papers and the family photos, and throwing out all of the crap.

Dad was, shall we say, a bit of a packrat, and I say that with the greatest fondness. The rule was, nobody went into dad’s office, and dad’s clutter didn’t attack the rest of the house. It worked for everyone. By the time I was done, my car was full (for the second time) of boxes of papers, photos and stuff, we’d put some stuff in the garage, my sister had taken some, we’d given furniture to friends and others — but most of the office was on the driveway, where the nice 800-Got-Junk people hauled it all away; we filled about half the truck

How’s this relate to photography?

Today’s “disk is cheap and getting cheaper” mentality lends itself to this pack rat mentality. Keep it, in case it’s useful later. You never know.

The problem with is that it doesn’t just have to exist, it has to be findable. If you keep everything, then you’re putting a lot of strain on the filing and organization system to help someone dig through the masses of material. And chances are, your filing system isn’t up to the task. Which effectively leaves behind an opaque mass of bits. One that depends on someone having the time, energy and motivation to find things in it.

Chances are that won’t happen. Think about the reality of what happens after someone dies. One of three things is most likely to happen:

1) it all gets stuffed in boxes to be dealt with “later”. Later may well be the grandchildren, great-grandchildern, or some random person dealing with the estate because someone had to. The chances they’re going to dig through everything in every box looking for hidden treasures, vs. grabbing a few key things in a few boxes and sending the rest to Goodwill or the dump?

2) that happens, only it happens right away. The relatives come in, grab a few things they want, and then the rest “goes somewhere” and everyone moves on.

3) someone actually takes the time to go through and figure out what’s worth keeping and what isn’t.

Do you really want to depend on (3)? Even if people start with the best of intentions, it’s a lot of work, and it’s difficult. I’m second-guessing myself constantly, so I’m taking it slowly and I’ve been thinking this through on how to do what we decided we wanted (which is to make sure we create collections of stuff that are relevant and interesting to family members and friends and get those to them, and focus mostly on what helps us remember dad and the family moving forward — effectively re-editing the collection into one that honors our memory of dad, instead of being a collection of stuff dad thought was important. It’s a significant shift in intent, but one that helps us keep that which has meaning to us)

I’m about five boxes in, with 20ish to go (and four feet of photo albums staring at me). I’m trying to finish up most of it by christmas, but it’ll be a challenge (and there is still the garage to clean out, and a storage building. I’m expecting most of both to make the 800-Got-Junk guys happy, but we’ll see).

Having to come to grips with how to — effectively — curate my dad’s effects has had me thinking about what I leave behind, and how to structure my stuff so limit this kind of thing. And the photo is a part of that.

I started a project last January to revamp my photo library from scratch; took me four months, learned a lot, pulled a lot of crap from the library, as I’ve gotten to be a much better photographer in that time. My flickr collection went from ~4000 images to about 1100.

I do actually cheat somewhat in my “delete early and often” strategy, though. I delete the dings and bad photos, because I simply can’t see the utility of an out of focus bird picture, no matter what technology does to the workflow in the future (any technology improvement that can save a bad picture is probably better used to make a good photo even better!)

But there’s a huge chunk of my photo set that aren’t dings, but aren’t really all that interesting, too. So these are now being archived into their own library. My workflow is set up to add basic metadata to them, but then they get sent off to a hard disk to live, where I fully expect nobody will ever look at them again. I currently have about 12,000 files in my “archive” library, and about 2,500 in my “primary”. Ultimately, that secondary archive will be stored somewhere (two copies, two locations), and every so often refreshed to a new disk, and ultimately, I expect to have multiple disks of archived photos…

But in reality, when you “Think about a lot of the classic images we look at that were shot 20, 50 or 100 years ago”, the chances are those images are going to be found in that smaller, primary library. The chances of an image coming out of the “not quite dings” archive to go on to be classic is tiny — if only because someone has to be motivated enough to find it.

By doing this kind of edit yourself, you set up the roadmap for others who might go looking later to make finding that classic image easier. More than that, you make the job that much easier for others. If I toss you a disk with 15,000 images on it, that’s going to be a lot more overwhelming than one with 2,000.

Digital photography and current camera technology makes it a lot easier (and cheaper, and faster) to take many more photos than the days of film. Current computer technology makes storing them easier and cheaper. All of this encourages us to think in terms of “keep it, just in case”. But when you step back, it’s not about storing it, it’s about finding it and using it. If you can’t find it, you can’t use it.

And making something findable is the tough part, not something we’ve found a way to automate well yet. It’s about good organization, good metadata, and keywording it well. Another aspect of being able to find something is to not clutter things up with a lot of stuff that makes it hard to find the better stuff.

That makes me think that over time, we’re going to realize that editing and deleting is a key component to managing a photo library. The only reason I’m keeping that secondary archive is that I’m not yet confident enough to have the guts to toss it — but just like my first round of edits to my collection I did at the start of the year, I expect I’ll keep doing collection edits as I continue to improve my craft, and more and more photos will be archived — and more and more will get outright deleted.

Just as I’ve done with the photos from dad, wher I’ve taken four boxes (so far) and edited them down to a few hundred of the best and most relevant. Because the reality is if I just kept the four boxes around, eventually the most likely result is that someone will pull them out of storage and throw them out — and the best would have been thrown out with them.

By deleting, you may occasionally lose an image that might have some value to someone some day. but the most likely reality is that any image that has that value you as a photographer will recognize also. By focusing your collection on those best images, you increase the chances of those best images to survive into the future, by making it easier for you to manage and find them, but also by making it easier for others who follow you to do so, too.

So if you ask me, deletion is a skill that our current technology discourages — but in reality, we should be embracing. Just because disk is cheap and we CAN keep every image doesn’t mean every image deserves to be kept. And by keeping them, you cheapen the overall value of the collection and make it incrementally harder for the best images to stand out….

This entry was posted in Photography.
  • Marshall

    Well, I am the owner of the “family archives”, which is pretty much what you described, except that it came from my great-grandparents, my grandparents, several great-aunts and uncles, and so on. It’s about 25 “20 gallon” bins of stuff.
    I’ve been going through it slowly for about 2 1/2 years – and I’m more than halfway done with the first pass (pulling out and scanning photographs). 4000 done, and probably another 2000 to go.
    [ DVDs full of scans made, and copies distributed around the family ]
    Second pass will be to get (and scan) negatives. After that, we’ll see.
    Besides the photos, I’ve found junk, and I’ve found treasures (tickets to the 1932 Rose Bowl), and just things that make you sad (a receipt for a half-sized grave site for a baby that died).
    All in all, I’m glad that my family didn’t throw away “all this crap” – but there’s sure a lot of it.

  • http://watkinslynn.typepad.com/pages_pucks_and_pantry/ Mrs. L

    I’m guilty of being a pack rat when it comes to my Grandmothers stuff which I inherited, my mothers which she is trying to go through herself and my own stuff which I’ve held onto for so long. So I’ve taken to “photographing” these items before I sell them or give them away. It helps me “let go”. Now I just have to do that with my photos :)

  • Mike

    My first reaction to his argument was this: in 2080, I’d love to look at a few good photos of the world in the 2000s, but no way would I want to browse through thousands because the photographer wouldn’t weed out the poor and so-so ones from his huge pile.
    I just lost a relative, and my parents are tasked with sorting through her home and estate. Fortunately, the death was anticipated, conversations were held, and she was not a huge pack rat. They have been able to make good progress in just one month. It’s got me thinking about (and doing) some things to change what I might leave behind.