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Fredrick Sommer, a photographer known for his minimal shooting output (a few hundred negatives in his whole career) once remarked that most photographers shoot too much, an, as they age go from being artists to someone managing an archive.


Broken Trees, Dover, New Jersey, Spring 1987

His student, Emmet Gowin, called photography “a generous medium”, by which (I think) he meant that when you finally figure out what you are trying to do, you probably already have the images you need.


Broken Trees, Fairbanks, Spring 1992

I’m nearly 60, and have been making photographs for nearly 40 years, always as an “amateur”, a lover of photography, always distracted by a “day job”.   I made pictures on weekends or days off, developed film when the weather was bad, and printed what I could in evenings or odd hours.  I always felt like I was leaving a lot of images “in the file”, and that someday I would get back to finish looking at them, and print all the good ones.


Trees Smashed by Thor, Fairbanks, April 2007

I didn’t think it would take this long, but finally, I seem to have time to go back and look at images in the file—to dig through the archive.  I have about 6,500 8×10 negatives, 3,000 4×5 negatives and just under 500 12×20 negatives—about 10,000 large format negatives in all.  Starting in 2004, I scanned every 8×10 and 4×5 negative as a proofing step (rather than contract printing), so I have digital images of about 3,000 negatives on my hard drive.


Flotsom and Jetsom, Tanana River, July 2008

I never set out to “do a project”, and I never had deadlines when something needed to be finished, so there was never a reason to put a project to bed, other than losing interest or moving to a new landscape.  I have some subjects I began photographing 30 years ago that I continue to photograph whenever I find a new scene.  I’m not trying to scan every sheet of film, but rather trying to find every image I made from a subject—so far, I’ve completed scans from the Dalton Highway (about 450 negatives), Denali Park (a mere 120 negatives), and my Tanana River Mud series (150 negatives).  I’m arranging these scans into print on demand wire bound books arranged by location or similarity in image content.

I always knew I was leaving some good images in the file, but I always assumed that I had skimmed the cream off the top—that I had identified and printed the best work as I went along.  After all, that’s what I had been taught—shoot film, develop it, proof it, examine the proofs, print the best, and move on.  What I am finding is a surprising number of wonderful images in the files—way more than I expected.


Wood Scraps, Northland Timber, Fairbanks, June 2010

To be honest, the my weak link in the chain was the proofing step—back in the silver days, I did make a proof of every negative, but they were done quickly—frequently overexposed and under developed—dark and flat—because I was usually guessing at exposure time (too lazy to make test strips).   If I had a show, I would try to produce some “finished prints”—which meant doing a test strip, and making 5 or 6 prints from a negative, then toning them differently, looking for a single finished image.  I could print maybe 5 or 6 negatives in a printing session (my print washer held 32 prints).


Smashed Wood, Oakesdale, WA, June 2013

Digital printing is far more predictable than the trial and error tedium of the darkroom.  The actual scan takes about 5 minutes (including handling the negative) on my flatbed scanner, followed by several steps in Photoshop to adjust contrast and sharpen the image. The most time consuming part is a dust removal step—with grayscale images, always done manually—usually takes 10-15 minutes.   The first print is often “good enough”—meaning that I would be willing to put it in a frame and hang it on a wall.  My standard workflow includes writing the negative number, the title and date of the negative, and the paper type and date of the print—and I sign the print.  I usually don’t number an edition—I usually only make one print from each image.

After six months of working, I’ve managed to catch up on my “proof scanning “ chore—when I began focusing on this task back in June, I was about 500 negatives behind—and I shot another 100 negatives since then.  My “workflow” includes a prescan and an 800 dpi scan for each negative, inverting in Photoshop, saving the file, then sharpening a bit and adding a label for a proof print.  I can do about five or six negatives an hour, so the 600 negatives required about 100 hours of time in front of the computer.  I sometimes think about a poker player who talked about the hardest part was just keeping your butt in the chair—with scanning, there are always dead times when it seems necessary to get up and run another errand—but the only way to get the job done is to stay, and focus on getting through the stack.

8-5440 Milk Jug, September, 2009

Six hundred negatives in two years isn’t that many pictures, by current standards.  I once shot ten rolls of 35 mm film in one day (in Philadelphia, at the Beach Boys Concert, July 4, 1984)—360 negatives.  Since the invention of digital, I’ve often taken several hundred images a day—traveling usually—but the barrier to making lots of pictures is so low that I just do it.   But what do you do with so many pictures?

About fifteen years ago, Emmet Gowin came to Fairbanks to give a workshop, and one thing he did was play an audio tape of an interview with Frederick Sommer.  I remember it as being one of the funniest interviews I’ve ever heard—two people talking past each other—the interviewer asking a series of incredibly straight questions, and Frederick Sommer answering on some completely different level.  My recollection is that one question referred to Sommer’s relatively small output as a photographer—only a few hundred negatives in his entire lifetime—and Sommer’s reply was that it was easy to make lots of pictures, but that eventually one stopped being an artist, and became a manager of an archive.

Frederick Sommer, "Ondine", 1950

This being 2010, I did a google search for interviews by Frederick Sommer, and found this interview with Barbaralee Diamondstein.  I think this is the interview Gowin played for us—the question of Sommer’s low productivity is raised, but the answer is different than I remembered it—maybe Gowin added the comment, or maybe I just dreamed it up while sitting in front of my computer—but I do sometimes worry that I may be buried under my archive.