Words of Wisdom from Avedon – And Why I Save Every Picture

Occasionally, when the timing works, people from my staff head off to attend or lead Photoshop or digital asset classes. This past week a representative from our office, Dartanyon, attended a Santa Fe Workshop put on by guru, Jerry Courvoisier. This post isn’t about all the great things that Jerry said or did. I’m sure there were plenty of both. Instead, this post is about something Jerry said to the class that I don’t agree with. What it amounts to is this: in passing, Jerry said something to the effect, “so after you’ve completely deleted all those crappy, non-select files from your main hard drive…”.

Dartanyon interrupted and told him that we don’t delete any files from our server once they’re shot. Jerry was, according to Dartanyon’s description, dumbfounded and thought it ridiculous that we save every picture. After explaining our general strategy to Jerry, namely that it’s more expensive (from an investment vs. return perspective) to eliminate every image that isn’t the hero from your hard drive (or in our case an XServe Raid), Jerry basically just rolled his eyes and called the strategy nuts. But despite Jerry frowning on this, my one point remains: If you’re a pro, or even an aspiring amateur, keep every digital image you shoot, forever. And as evidence, I offer two considerations:

1) Ultimately, hard drive space is probably cheaper than the value of your time sunk into establishing which pictures to trash forever – especially given the plummeting cost of storage. Sure, a tightly edited collection is nice. But as long as you can highlight the heroes, you’re not required to chuck the chafe. Perhaps you only tag, and give the full presidential treatment to a certain percentage of your images, but truly it MUST be more expensive, both now and in the future, to throw out a 10 mb RAW file than it is to keep it. As evidence, I’d offer that I’ve seen great examples in my career of images that I’d have chucked for one reason or another, that one of my editors (client, agency, in-house, magazine, stock, whatever…) latched onto. And often, that shot went on to kick some serious ass. You can’t hardly afford NOT to keep your images, even if you’re a great editor.

AND perhaps more interesting/convincing…

2)Even Richard Avedon saw wisdom in this, long before the digital revolution. He tells a story how his famous work “In the American West” came about from keeping interesting, different, even bad photos:

I went on vacation to Sicily, where I made pictures. When I returned, I showed them to Brodovitch. Among my contact prints he saw this photograph of a little boy standing at attention against a white sky, with a tree behind him that rose out of focus, in the shape of an atomic cloud. ‘This is interesting,’ he said, ‘It can be your guide.’ It was technically amateurish, an almost unprintable negative, but from the moment I took it I had some inarticulate sense that the image mattered to me. There was something autobiographical about it – in that boy, his smile, his overeagerness, and his shoulders thrown back so violently and vulnerably.

It took 20 years before I was able to absorb that unconscious wisdom into my more conscious work and return what was foreshadowed in that snapshot. My work “In The American West” came about from the snapshot I took in Sicily in 1947.

I learned from Brodovitch to learn from myself, from my accidents and dreams. Your next step is most often your false step. Never throw away your contacts. The photographs you took when you were not thinking about taking photographs – let them be your guide.

So, the long and short of it is: keep your pictures because you CAN.

Sorry Jerry. And thanks to Concerning Photography blog for the Avedon quote!

9 Responses to Words of Wisdom from Avedon – And Why I Save Every Picture

  1. Finn McKenty April 30, 2007 at 5:00 am #

    Great post, and I agree completely with you, Chase. I can think of about 100 zillion times that throwing something away came back to bite me on the ass, but I’m having a pretty tough time thinking of an occasion that keeping stuff was much of a problem.

    On a more philosophical level, I appreciate the idea of keeping things that aren’t “perfect.” Like you pointed out, sometimes that ends up being the best work in the right context.

  2. Todd W. April 30, 2007 at 8:38 am #

    Seems the burden of evidence would require this guy to explain what benefit would be obtained by deleting the files? What reason did he give? Perhaps its the pack rat in me, but you’d have to have a pretty god reason to delete any picture.

  3. Chase Jarvis April 30, 2007 at 9:48 am #

    Finn: Two thoughts on your comment…
    1)true that keeping stuff is rarely EVER a problem, especially if you’re a pro or hard core amateur – especially the case if you’re properly organized in the storing of your digital assets (this is key).

    2)the philosophical points are the most interesting here for sure. And it’s this that Avedon latches onto. It’s from these ‘off’ images that we often find inspiration, drama, vision. I regularly gravitate toward imperfection as a means to access ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ feeling lifestyle imagery. I just wish more of my clients would too ;)

  4. Chase Jarvis April 30, 2007 at 9:52 am #

    Todd: I KNOW! If the benefit is saving hard drive space, then at what COST?! The cost of editing the holy crap out of every set of images (how long does that take and how much is your time worth?!) I realize the most people don’t hang around with 10 TB of data, so what does an extra 500gb hard drive cost (for them to keep the ‘throw away’ images at year’s end… $200 bucks? I say it’s crazy to chuck ‘em.

  5. Carson Blume April 30, 2007 at 1:32 pm #

    It is so dam cheap to keep everything if you look at the big picture. and you really NEVER know when they could be useful again. I realized this 2 years ago when I got a call from a book company asking for shots of women cycling, they didn’t want the “perfect” shot. But, sadly I had edited any shots that could work away, I did have it at one time, but because I didn’t want to spend the $200 on a new hard drive I lost a book cover!


  6. Jason Campbell May 18, 2007 at 6:59 am #

    Dirck Halstead’s image of Bill Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky provides a great reason not to delete photos. You can read his story Here http://zonezero.com/magazine/articles/halstead/monica.html and here http://www.cah.utexas.edu/photojournalism/detail.php?nickname=halstead&picid;=6
    He was still shooting film at the time and reasoned that other photographers shooting digital at the event deleted their photos of the hug. The lesson here is to treat digital as if it were film and keep every frame.

  7. Jason Campbell May 18, 2007 at 7:03 am #

    The Monica link above was cut off above. Here is the Link

  8. Chase Jarvis May 21, 2007 at 10:13 pm #

    True True. I’ve heard of photogs who had that shot in camera and deleted it, as you said… Bummer for them. Cementing my point and yours.

    A fundamental point to all this, again however, is that I’m not advocating saving everything in chaotic way. It has to be ORGANIZED. Emphasis on every darn letter of that word…

  9. Michal Krempa March 9, 2010 at 11:47 am #

    Sorry to be a few years too late on this comment but I'm just a new reader of your blog and was just right now going through the archive and stumbled onto this topic which was bothering me quite a lot in the past. I mean i want to save all the pictures from shoot but at the same time i don't have the money (since i'm a student) to buy new storage every few months, so i came up with a picture archiving plan.
    1) when downloading the images from the camera i have a the nikon transfer app set to sort the images according to the date shot.
    2) then i put them into aperture and do a rough select of the pictures
    3) since the raw files are too big i convert them to jpeg (but i still have the original raw files in aperture)
    4) and the last thing is that i download the jpegs to a server with 500GB HDD (RAID 1) since my macbook HDD is small

    So if i ever want to use a picture again i can (it's no the RAW quality but it's at least something)
    I understand that you pro and therefore have more images to store and more money to buy storage. I am just a small young amateur hoping to some day be able to at least make some money with photography

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