Letting Go – and Digging Out

Looking Past Kodachrome

I’m one of those photographers who was initially reluctant to make the move to digital. I loved the aesthetics of capturing the “perfect” transparency, and the brilliance and fidelity of peering through film on my light table.  Only with time did I begin to appreciate the many advantages that digital brought: the instant feedback, the limitless numbers of frames, and the ease of sharing.  But it was a difficult transition, especially for an old guy like me that had amassed more than a hundred thousand transparencies over the years.

Yes, I had a lot of slides. And although I would like to say that every one was a work of staggering genius, the fact is that less than 5% of my collection really generated any sales – the rest simply took up room. (An observation my wife made on a regular basis)  “I will edit them,” I told her, ” and get rid of the ones that weren’t worth keeping.”   I truly believed that   – but somehow  I never found the time.

Then came the winter of 2008. Here in Seattle, we rarely get snowstorms of any consequence – just a lot of rain. But this one, just before Christmas, shut down the city and covered the streets with ice. We were stuck in our house  for 9 days. So how did I kill the time?  By finally editing my slide collection..for 9 straight days…and when the ice and snow finally cleared, I hauled a truck load of garbage bags, filled with my life’s work, to the Seattle Dump.

I mentioned this process to a colleague who writes for Shutterbug, and he thought it worthy of a story.  Have a look:


With 90% of my slides composting in a landfill, I have never  once regretted my decision. And if I can inspire others to get off the dime, and do a serious edit of decades worth of  slides, I’ll have done a real service.

Go for it…and let me know how it went.


    Kevin, kudos to you for the fortitude to throw out those old slides! I have no where near the 100K Kodachromes and Ektachomes that you had but I am still reluctant to edit them and rid my home of them. I still occasionally will scan some of them into digitals and am surprised that some turn out so well. Do I miss the days of Kodak prepaid mailers and lightboxes? Not really, but the memories of the places that I photographed in the ’70’s and the fact that they look so much different today make me hesitant to dispose of those old transparencies.

    James – I would certainly never advocate throwing out stuff that has either historic, emotional or visual value. I had a lot of “seconds” and alternative shots of images that I kept for “safety” sake. The truth be known, I also had some shots that I should have edited out in the beginning! I’ve scanned nearly 5000 slides into our digital collection : we simply were never going to get to the rest…

    I found this very interesting, as I am in the process of scanning some of my 45 years of B&W film. I worked for two weekly newspapers shooting a local high school every Friday night. I also walked around town shooting the different construction that went on in Charlotte, N.C. I now find that I have a history of all the changes that happened during that time. It is like going through a time machine. I had 18,000 negatives, and when I finished with those I found that I had at least 18,000 more to sort through before I would throw them out. This isn’t counting all of the slides that are now sitting in boxes waiting for me to glance at them. My reason for doing this has been my Daughter in Law. She said that she would have to be the one who went through all of these, and dreaded that day. I thought it would be better if I did it. Now I see that there are some articles in all of that stuff. Think about it, we hold a time machine in our hands everytime we go out and shoot.

    Charles, thanks for your comments. I completely agree with you that your collection may have significant historical value, and be worth saving for that reason. My work, on the other hand, has mostly been with wildlife, which (except for the many vanishing species I have covered) is not particularly time-sensitive.

    You’ve also hit on the other key issue : leaving our pictures unedited for the next generation to handle. I think that was also in the back of my mind when I went through my work – I’m much more likely to know what is worthwhile or significant than my daughter, who may end up with the responsibility of sorting out my estate. I’d rather make her job easier! Maybe you could leave your negatives to the Charlotte Historical Society?

    Another issue on my mind was the tax consequences. When a photographer dies, his image collection can be valued as part of the estate and can create an enormous tax burden for survivors. I know of a widely-published photographer whose family was hit with a catastrophic tax bill based on traditional per-image valuations of $1500/each.

    In the end, there are plenty of reasons to make time for editing your collection. It’s just a question of doing it…!

    Mr. Schafer:

    I hope that you are not like myself and that you are not regretting your decision, which is final and irreversible. However, I would have archived your newly digitalized collection of Kodachromes, or even donated to a school devoted to photography for them to study, scan and rescan them, like Ansel Adams did with his negatives!

    I am now in the process of finding my old negatives and scan them in my old Polaroid SprintScan 35 to, perhaps, put them in Facebook to share with my friends.

    It was indeed a very hard decision that only you can live with!


    The truth is there was a lot of duplication, and irrelevance in my collection – I edited carefully and did not discard anything that had any real and unique value. I suspect most photographers need a substantial edit: I just finished going through my father’s 50-year slide collection, and kept only a fraction.

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