Don’t Delete

Images, Old and New, Are Pay Dirt

By David Vestal Back to

A recent task was to tell the gallery that represents me in New York City just how many prints I have on hand of each of more than 100 photos. They have one to three prints of each one. I found no prints at all of several. That was the easy part. Of the rest, I found from one to several prints of each. Finding them required (1) a long-overdue filing frenzy, looking through many prints and putting each one in its place among my boxes, and (2) going through the boxes to find all the prints I have of the photos on the gallery’s list.

I started this in April, taught workshops in June, then picked the job up again in July, and finished in October. I set aside all the prints I found of the gallery-list photos. They fill seven 11×14×3-inch boxes, a substantial stack. Another small box holds written papers—the gallery’s list, and my list of the prints I found for them. Typing my long list took several hours, too.

I got a lot of exercise lugging print boxes from shelves to a table and back: paper is heavy. I also learned some things I hadn’t known. I found that I generally have more prints per picture of my early work than of anything done later. That’s because I did a lot of reprinting as I gradually came to see how poorly I’d printed many photos at the start. Many of my “vintage” prints, wanted by the gallery because they fetch higher prices than later prints, fall in this poorly-printed class.

Apparently bad printing bothers dealers and collectors less than it bothers me. Nicks and scrapes and stains seem to bother them more than poor printing. Recent photographic forgeries, sold to dealers as prints made by Lewis Hine and by Man Ray, were detected and deplored because the prints were too good.

To my mind, anyone who prints good pictures better than the photographers who originally made them is doing a public service. This should be considered by the court. Good printing is no crime. The crime is the deception, the pretense that those photographers had made the prints that he, the forger, “found.” It seems to me that a forger who prints too well should pay a f ine and suffer a legal slap on the wrist. He should then be put on the payroll to do good honest printing as himself. We shouldn’t waste such talents.

Reprinting better

More interesting to me than that was that in the search I found many photos I had printed, put away, and forgotten. I now want to reprint some of them better than before. As if I didn’t already have more to do than I can do; but never mind. This rediscovery stimulates me.

Revisiting my old stuff also leads me to make digital prints of the best of it, as well as reprinting in the darkroom. I’m glad I have those negatives. Digital printing does not conflict with my silver printing. In fact, my inkjets often show me what to do in the darkroom. I’m much more interested in pictures than in how they’re made, and anything that helps me print better is welcome. Some pictures do better in inkjet and some do better in silver. I value both kinds.

As I was typing the print list for the gallery, a letter came from Robert Thompson, a pen-and-photo pal I haven’t met, but we have sent many words and pictures back and forth. He’s in Wisconsin now, and doing some teaching.

His letter starts as a hymn of praise for the shoebox. In clearing out his family’s house—he gave no details— he found shoeboxes full of family snapshots in the attic. He can’t identify most of the people in those photos, but some touch his life directly, and to him these pictures are a treasure. I, too, have just such shoebox photos, so I know how he feels. People no longer with us saved pictures that meant something to them, not as works of art, but as memories of their own lives. This collection from the past means a lot to Peter. To photographers, our negatives, new and old, are pay dirt, something we always keep, and we mine them now and then to make new prints. I have lost a few choice negatives in moving from one place to another, and I’ve felt the loss. All right, I tell myself, they’re gone. Don’t go into mourning. Move on, make new ones, and keep them carefully. It’s better to have them than not, even if you don’t intend to print them again. You can still print them later if you want to.

Peter went on to complain that on field trips some of his students who use digital cameras shoot a few pictures of something, then go to their cars and start deleting everything they don’t instantly like. That is a big mistake. They don’t give themselves time to consider their own pictures, and almost certainly lose many photos that they’d want to keep if they took their time and looked more carefully.

The unexpected hit

Peter’s experience is like mine. In going through old work, we find good pictures that we didn’t notice when they were new. Maybe we didn’t know enough to recognize an unexpected hit. Maybe we just didn’t pay attention. Either way, if we have the negatives we can print them. The same goes for digital picture files.

Our sensitivity is quicker than our understanding. I know that I have taken many good pictures that I didn’t recognize as good at the time. Something better than my understanding had led me to push the button. Not seeing those pictures clearly right away, I ignored them and printed what I recognized at first look. But I kept all the negatives.

As we work, we come to know more and become more patient and less inclined to rush past our own work that we don’t yet recognize. Now I am quicker to see in my own new work the “accidental” good photos that I used to ignore. I have learned that I sometimes work ahead of my understanding. I think most of us do. We operate on impulse more than on knowledge, and we need to give our unintended photos a chance.

The brilliant woman who started and organized the New York Public Library’s monumental picture collection, Romana Javitz, said from her long experience, “No one can know in advance which pictures will be important in the future.” That collection consists of all kinds of pictures—photos, drawings, illustrations, advertising art, scientif ic and police records, and on and on. It is a marvelous reference source, as I know from using it. She told me how she chose the headings those hundreds of thousands of pictures are f iled under: they are “What people ask for.” It follows that any picture you take, good or bad, may in time become valuable and important for reasons you can’t foresee, however unlikely that seems; so do not discard your photos casually.

I wrote to Peter that among the unused buttons on my digital camera, I have never learned which one is the Delete button. Just as I keep all my negatives, good and bad alike, I keep all of my digital shots, good and bad alike. It never occurred to me to delete any. As I fill up memory cards, I put the photos each one contains on the computer, and then I put the card in a file drawer for future reference, complete with every photo in its original untweaked form. I don’t know how long a compact flash card can keep its pictures usably intact, but for as long as they last, all of my digital exposures, misses and mistakes and all, are right there waiting if I want them.

I proof-print everything that seems usable, and I delete nothing. In four years of digital shooting, I already have found and printed many photos that I overlooked at f irst sight. They tend to be elusive and they are worth catching when you finally notice them. Don’t let your “good accidents” get away.

About the Author

David Vestal
David Vestal is a photographer and teacher whose publications include The Art of Black & White Enlarging (1984) and The Craft of Photography. His photographs are exhibited internationally and are found in numerous private and public collections including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY. The wit and wisdom of his commentaries have long earned him a strong following among readers.