The Deadwood Stage

Read on. The title will make sense eventually.

This blog episode follows directly on from the one before it, posted a few weeks back. It picks up my closing thoughts in that, and runs with them. The issue being addressed was, basically, how I should tackle a very necessary and large-scale “ thinning out” of my huge collection of 35mm colour slides, in a collection spanning about 40 of the last 50 years, most of which was too good just to throw away, but which wasn’t really “earning its keep” any more.

I’d had a gut feeling that if I just dived in and started culling parts of the collection without a planned approach, I might end up with a very inconsistent and imperfectly reduced body of work. But I had to start somewhere. So, I sat down with several trays from the most recent part of the largest single topic in the library, which contains my photos of the Italian Dolomite mountains. 

“Most recent” in this respect means photos from about 1996 to 2000. From around 1998, I’d been shooting about fifty-fifty 35mm slides and medium format film, and after 2000, I dropped 35mm completely. I didn’t “go digital” until the end of 2005. At the moment the job in hand is only to work on the 35mm slides. The medium format needs a bit of tidying up and the digital stuff doesn’t warrant attention at the moment.

The latest Covid lockdown left me with a decent amount of time on my hands, which, as the size of the task facing me became evident, was just as well.

My 35mm slide library is big. It’s about 80% material I took for my own pleasure, and 20% commissioned work or stuff from contracts I’d won. It is organised very simply. The major sub-divisions are the major interest area of the photos. So “Dolomites”, “Scotland”, “Motorsport”, and so on. Within each sub-division, everything is in chronological order.  As a way to retrieve photos, it basically works. The slides in some sub-divisions are also consecutively numbered right through. I decided to do this very early on (in the 1970s) after dropping a load of slides on the floor, because I realised I’d have no chance of putting things back in order if I dropped stuff when the collection began to grow. Some parts of the collection also cross-referenced subject matter and numbering, though I didn’t keep this up, because it spoiled the essential simplicity of the library. It is mostly housed in interlocking  plastic storage boxes which have stood the ravages of time, house moves, etc, remarkably well. These were only ever good for 35mm slides. As I drifted towards medium format film, the strips of slides and negatives went into a ringbjnder system I still use for that stuff nowadays. Digital material and such scans of my slides as I’ve made (a very small percentage of the total shot), is on several hard drive units.

My memory of events, people and places is still good enough (with exceptions) for me to recognise roughly what almost any particular batch of photos covers, but not nearly good enough to be able to pinpoint given shots on demand. Fortunately, I have copious volumes of notes and diaries to augment my memory, and take out most of the guess-work. I never managed to put anything like listings of photos on computer, let alone a searchable database, mainly because, by the time I bought my first home computer, the library was already very big, and I baulked at the work that would have been involved in logging or tagging it all retrospectively.

What had become clear to me, a long time ago, if I’m honest, is that as the years passed, any given batch of slides contained an increasing percentage of “dead wood”, which ought to be my priority for thinning out. After writing the last episode of this blog, I began to think quite a lot about what constituted “dead wood”, and how individual photos should be awarded that description. 

I’d concluded that there would be: 

1) images that, despite my best endeavours to protect the collection from damp and dust, had physically deteriorated in some way. Usually this was down to particular film emulsions having a tendency to thin or discolour over time.

2) images that I had kept in the collection to provide some sort of wider context to other photos if needed, but where the need for them to do that had now passed.

3) images that I simply don’t think are very good any more, or which no longer reflect my style or interests. Because I am a good self-critic of my work, and most sub-standard content never got into the library in the first place, I expected this to be a very small component.

It seemed to me basically a case of getting stuck in, targeting these three particular types of “space-hog”, and seeing where that took me. I was open to the hit list growing larger than the above three categories.

Well, so far (because, given the volume, I still have a long way to go) all is good! I’m working from newer back to older, because a lot more of the bloat in the library is in the newer stuff. Better cameras, better film and better opportunities to shoot stuff caused that. I find that I am also less “sentimental” about newer material, making it easier to thin down.

When I started this thing ( and hence the title of the previous blog), I thought some of the “discards” would get scanned and saved as digital images instead of film. There were two flies in this ointment: my scanner began to play up (diagnosis is terminal, I suspect), and the sheer volume of discards was greater than I’d anticipated. To begin with, this has led to me erring slightly on the cautious side, mainly in order to reduce (or put off until I get a new scanner) the potential scanning volume to be attempted.

Other than that, my suspicions about what I’d find by way of “dead wood” were proved largely correct. So far as photos taken for my own pleasure are concerned, my tastes have changed over the years. Thus, it was quite easy, and emotionally painless, to remove from the archive pictures I just didn’t “like” any more, and which couldn’t be redeemed (for example) by scanning and doing some form of manipulation, cropping, or suchlike. For images shot for commercial work I’d done, such as specific contracts and magazine work, things were easier – by and large, their physical health was checked, and if ok, they have stayed in the collection.

In some cases, I’m finding as many as two out of three photos are being discarded, in others, more like one in three. So, overall, maybe half of the accumulated archive might end up going, by the time I’m finished.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression this is mainly a calculated piece of work. No: despite what I’ve said above, emotion plays a big part. For example, in many cases, for the good memories they have left with me, or which “rediscovery” of the photos has triggered, many photos have been spared the bin. This is especially so if they represent important “time and place” events in my life. I’m not seeing that kind of partiality as a good or a bad thing: it’s just how it is.

And, of course, many of the “rediscoveries” are associated with things I’d forgotten, but which have brought me great joy through coming to light like this. This is creating a kind of “win-win” situation for me. I’m achieving the aim of demolishing the cause of a lot of what has become “wasted space” at home. But I’m doing that in a way that is reconnecting me with a great many good times from my past lives.

The job goes on, and will probably take me another few weeks. I’ll let you know in due course how it ended up.

An update, early May 2021: Well, it’s May, and the job actually took much longer that the “few weeks” I estimated, of course. Some of that was due to an old and increasingly unreliable scanner, and some was due to other things getting in the way. However, ’tis done and (for now) I am satisfied that I have done all I can to get rid of that “dead wood” and organise my archive (most of it, at least) in a way that I can live with for the next little while.

The job threw up quite a few issues I’d not anticipated, such as showing how muddled some of my digital photo collections had become – particularly where recent work had, for example, been edited on my iPad, but never moved to a more permanent home. That’s mostly been taken care of now. At least, until I change my mind and decide to move some more things to a proper archive

The photo at the top of this piece comes from a ski tour I made in early March 1997 in the Italian Dolomites. It’s part of a fine set of slides that I hadn’t seen for years, and brought back many memories of an epic few days in the mountains.


About tomsprints

I am a Masters athlete and freelance photographer living in Kent, in Great Britain. I'm a sprinter. As well as competing, my camera and I work regularly for the British Masters Athletics Federation and the European and World Masters Athletics organisations. For pleasure, I'm (principally) a landscape photographer. I have been blessed with the chance of spending quite a lot of time in the European Alps in the last 30 years. My web site is a vehicle for a my photographic work, and is at I run two blogs. One is about what it's like to be an older athlete ( ) and the other is basically about my photography ( ), although they often overlap.
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