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The Existential Argument for the Photographic Print


When I die I will no longer have active control over my archive. My will will outline that my negatives are left to any archive that may want them — depending on whether my career looks anything like I’d want it to, this may be one or two, or none. The main responsibility falls to me to do what I can while alive if I’m to enjoy being represented in the photography community by work that legitimizes me.

This means actively working to produce the best images possible while in the field, and on curating and presenting my work in a way that offers people something tangible, something they are hopefully not likely to send to a landfill.

Digital files are as durable as the systems they exist on. I don’t think there is yet an ideal solution for digital file management, which is one of the reasons I use film. This is its own discussion, but I do doubt that there are many people willing to trawl through hard drives of work doing the same thing that you hear about with families discovering shoeboxes/folders full of negatives and prints.

The distinction between those negatives and prints is significant. Just as I wouldn’t expect someone to sort through many digital files, I also wouldn’t want them to have to sort through my negatives. If I leave prints behind, then that is a clearer indicator that my authorial voice was involved and that their survival and storage indicate that in some way they represent something I am happy with.

Individual prints, or better yet publications, can be stored in more ways and places than a digital file. JPEGs on a hard drive or in a cloud are copies of copies, and presenting any of these with different screen settings or even print settings, without my input, will not be my vision. A darkroom print made by me, will not be replicated by anyone else. A digital print proofed and specified by me may be easier to replicate, but still will not really be “authentic”.

Most importantly, I can consider my physical prints “backed up” in many forms, and in many places, with a more secure feeling than a digital file. A USB in a sealed vault can still fail, whereas we still have documents dating back to the middle ages, ink still legible. If I have a successful print run and copies end up owned by many people, stored in many ways, then that one image has a better chance of survival long term than any digital solution.

Those same physical prints are of a quality that can be rescanned, reprinted, and even photocopied, which, while not ideal while I’m looking to profit from them, is still a means by which they may extend outwards for future enjoyment.

I recently read an article about a photographer who sadly lost his archive in a fire.

While the originals may no longer exist there is actually a sizeable amount of work that did seem to survive, in the form of the books and prints he had sold over the years. Certainly they aren’t original but they are unmistakably his work, out in the world, continuing onwards even when their master copy is in ashes. This sort of story is very motivating to me to get as much printed as possible and do what I can to sell, or even gift to friends, just to get them off of my negatives and out of my house. Knowing they are in filing cabinets, behind glass on walls, it’s more than an ego statement, it’s the solution to the existentialist issue of survival.

When having this conversation in the past with my peers, I’ve sometimes brought up the idea of simply destroying my negatives upon my death. This would mean that all that exists of my work is exactly what I’ve printed and put out into the world, not much more. I think this can be misunderstood — this isn’t some grand dramatic statement, but a means of restricting which parts of my legacy people can access.

I understand that in some situations where an archive of a photographer’s work has been “discovered,” the result is the publication of work based on different interpretations, as different people own the negatives and have different opinions as to the direction the legacy of a stranger to them ought to go in.

Destroying my negatives only makes sense if I’m able to maintain the quantity of prints that I’d like to. I’ve spent some time in lockdown donating some older work to libraries and friends in order to make space for my emerging projects. These are usually well-received, and it’s nice to know I am represented in those spaces. In making sure that this work shows me at my best, I am comfortable that my vision exists without the need for external control.

Once published, my work has escaped my orbit. I prefer for this to happen by my choice and in the way that I intend. I know that on the Internet there are some truly awful images attached to my name, early work which I wouldn’t consider publishing today. But there is also quality, and the harder I work the better that quality becomes, outweighing that early work which I hope is recognized for what it is.

Anything I don’t manage to print or publish by the time I die and lose that control I hope falls to the hands of someone willing to actually learn about the context the work was created in, rather than simply judging the images by aesthetic merit alone.

It’s an odd topic to discuss; after all, once I’m dead I probably won’t care about what happens to my legacy. The aspect of this that matters while I’m alive is that my photographs existing as physical artifacts allow me to use them in a way that photographers who exist only digitally cannot. I carry a selection of my prints, I frequently trade with other like-minded photographers, and I enjoy that community. Having spent a long time existing socially on a screen during the events of the last year while in a state of lockdown and isolation I cherish what those physical prints offer even more – they are their own thing, not a portal to all digital mediums.

There’s something very peaceful about having a photograph as its own thing, unchanging, a fixed point. I’d encourage everyone to feel that about their work – there are plenty of options for high-quality printing at affordable rates. Even if it’s just for you to own and enjoy, not to sell or give away, it will not be anything other than that photograph, and I think that can be enough.

Thanks for reading my thoughts on print! You can find BARDO, a recent print collaboration I worked on at this link: newexitgroup.com/print. I buy all my film from Analogue Wonderland . Find a selection of my work on Instagram.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.