Organizing and Preserving Your Archive

Jeff Brouws, photo by Henry A. Koshollek, M.A.

Here are suggestions from Jeff Brouws, presented at the panel discussion (with slight revision and additions) at “Conversations about Photography” April 12, 2008. Brouws is a fine-art photographer whose work can be found in museum collections across the United States.

What would an ideal archive look like, and how would it be organized? Having talked extensively with photographers over the last four years about where their archive might go upon their passing made me formulate a few ideas that I want to pass on to the photographers in the audience.

First off, I believe that a public institution is more likely to welcome your collection if it is contacted, archivally-secure (negatives, prints and ephemera properly sleeved in inert materials), and chronologically or geographically organized. If you have it together in this way you’re not only doing them a favor, you’re also making your artwork that much more accessible–you’re enhancing its value.

So my advice is to have some type of a positive for every image you’ve shot (and obviously I’m referring here more to the photographers who’ve shot film, not the present-day digital shooters). This is easily accomplished these days; if you’re an old-school photographer who shot b&w negatives you don’t even have to go in the darkroom anymore. A suggestion: get an inexpensive flatbed scanner, which typically is 9 x 12 in size. If you shot 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 or 4 x 5 film you can get a whole roll of 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 (in strips of 3 or 4) or four 4 x 5 negatives onto the scanner bed for a “gang” scan (like making a contact sheet of one roll of 2-1/4 x 2-1/4 film or four 4 x 5 negatives on one piece of photographic paper). In about a minute you’ll have a 300dpi scan of those negatives. The beauty of this is that you now have a digital file that can be printed on an archival pigment printer (archival pigment prints now have a lifespan of 120 years or so) giving you a “hard” copy; you’ll also have a digital file that can be viewed on a computer monitor. It should be stressed however that these are not high resolution scans for reproduction purposes, but rather of a high enough quality for research and a “seeing-what-is-there” type usage. When you hand the collection over, assuming you’ve made a hard copy of everything you’ve “digitally” contacted, the institution has the best of all worlds–hard copy and digitized file. With things digitized, a researcher can go to a computer station and access the whole collection without physically handling originals. (The Richard Steinheimer Collection at Southern Methodist University, with the aid of a grant from Kalmbach Publishing and the hard work of Dick’s wife Shirley will be in this state in a few years). The digital files can be made into (low-quality) jpegs for Internet use, and so forth; the hard copy can remain with the actual negatives in the institution’s files for easy retrieval by the resident archivist or visiting researcher when the need arises.

Talking About Portfolios, Working Methods, Analog Vs. Digital

A second thought: I would urge all the photographers in the audience–whether you’re just starting out or at the tail end of your career–to assemble your work into portfolios. Make portfolios as you go along; segregate your work into series, taking a page from how fine-art photographers work. You might make an exhibition-quality master portfolio of your 50 favorite railroad photographs; this portfolio becomes the definitive photographic statement of your life as a railroad photographer. Or perhaps you could make a series of portfolios of 12-20 images each that encompass subjects like train station architecture, or the human side of railroading. Or say you’re someone like Bill Botkin or Victor Hand who has traveled the world shooting steam. Maybe Bill assembles a portfolio on the Beyer-Garrets of Zimbabwe or Victor Hand does a Steam in England portfolio.

Think of this scenario: what you might do is make each of these portfolios in an edition of 5. The reason I suggest this is because it’s easy to gang print either in the darkroom or digitally these days. Upon your death you’ve instructed your heirs in your will to donate 3 of the portfolios to three of your favorite institutions. Perhaps your main archive of negatives, prints, and ephemera goes to a central institution, but other museums or repositories around the country can acquire a master set of your prints for their own archives too (do your due diligence: contact the institutions you wish to donate to and make sure they want your work in their collection. You might also set aside some type of a financial trust or cash contribution to said institution to help with the handling of your archive). Using Bill Botkin as an example again: maybe one portfolio of his 50 greatest hits goes to the Denver Public Library’s Western Collection, maybe another one goes to CSRM and maybe the third one comes to the Center for Railroad Photography & Art at Lake Forest College here. The other two might be offered for sale to collectors. Make no mistake, there are railroad and photography collectors out there that would be interested in purchasing this work; you’d be amazed at what becomes valuable after someone dies. The sale of the two portfolios defrays the cost of the production of making all 5, or actually becomes part of the financial inheritance that goes to Bill’s family.

Now before you stop yourself and think, wow, this would be a lot of work to make five portfolios of fifty images each–which in total becomes 250 prints that have to be made–let me outline scenarios to get this accomplished conventionally and digitally. Little steps lead us to completion.

If you’re still in the wet darkroom you set aside one morning a week for printing. You select one negative that in the course of 4-5 hours you’ll be making five exhibition-quality prints of. Considering that there’s always some waste and damage when making fiber-based prints (or RC if that’s what you want to do), perhaps you make 8 prints of the negative. If you’re disciplined and work one day a week, after 50 weeks (less than a year) you have 5 sets of your master portfolio printed. You’ve purchased archival portfolio boxes from Light Impressions, or if you really want to go over the top you can have custom boxes made. You’re done. These portfolios are ready to be donated to institutions across the country when the time comes.

If you’re working digitally, you figure out a way to make a high-resolution scan of each negative, get it correct in Photoshop, and then print it on your home archival pigment printer. Naturally if you don’t have a computer, printer or scanner up front costs can be significant depending on how you look at it–but here’s a shakedown on that front: flatbed scanners these days made by Epson, employing a wet-solution, are in the $600 to $800 dollar range (don’t worry: the wet-solution doesn’t harm the negatives). If you’re going to scan an entire archive on a cost basis this is a steal. Or, if you can afford it, there are production houses across the country like NancyScans of Chatham, New York, who can do excellent drum scans in the 100mb range for $50 each. While $2,500 might seem like a lot of money to get 50 negatives scanned, corrected and “spotted” what you save in terms of time and darkroom effort is significant if you also have an archival pigment printer that handles the printing. Epson’s archival pigment printers range in size from 8.5″ x 11″ up to 60″ depending on your needs; costs range from $600 to $15,000. (If we affix a medium price range for this scenario for your computer gear, printer and scanner you might spend in the neighborhood of $2,500 to $3,500 for all the components in total. This equipment would make beautiful 13 x 19s easily, using a low-end Epson scanner and rudimentary computer and a 13 x 19 archival pigment printer). The archival pigment papers have reached new quality levels too; Epson’s Exhibition Fiber paper surpasses (I’ve personally used this paper) conventional fiber-based papers in terms of contrast and D-Max, closely resembling surface-wise, Ilford’s double-weight glossy Galerie paper (when air-dried). Life expectancy for image quality is 120 years. Hahnamuele also makes a fine-art cotton rag with similar characteristics (David Plowden uses this when making digital prints). In the Rooting for Digitizing your Collection Department: all scanners see into your negatives at least one stop, i.e. you’ll be amazed at the amount of information lost through your conventional enlarging lens. And if you’re having trouble with your 30-40 year old negatives deteriorating–all easily fixable in Photoshop. And with a digitized image it really becomes a press of the button to make 5 prints of each negative you’ve selected for your “master” portfolio after you’ve worked on your scan and gotten it were you want it. If you figure you have another 30-40 years as a working photographer this investment seems minimal, equipment-wise, especially when you consider that traditional papers and chemicals may no longer be available soon (or if they are the cost will be at a premium from boutique production companies).

On a side note: Steve Barry asked during the conference panel discussion about copyright issues–what would happen if you actually donated 3 portfolios to different institutions. Perhaps as our research continues we’ll be able to fill in this blank in the future. In the meantime consult with your lawyer.

Tax Breaks

There may be potential tax benefits, too, if, and when, you decide to donate your portfolio(s) or archives to public institutions (please note: these bills are not law–they are pending). The Artist Deduction Bill S. 548 and HR 1524 is now before the House of Representatives. This Bill would give artists the right to deduct the fair market value of their work when donated to museums and other non-profit organizations. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) support the bill. Listen toLeahy discuss the bill.

Advocates who support the bill have created a petition.

Naturally, your work would need to be appraised to ascertain its fair market value. For (railfan) photographers that have participated in art shows or sold their work at events like Winterail, these public records could legally help in establishing print value. If you’ve had books published, or photographs printed in magazines, that would also help in determining the individual print value. I only mention this potential tax break because I’ve talked to many older photographers out there who undervalue what they’ve accomplished; they also don’t seem motivated to get their archives in order or wish to create portfolios that would enhance the value of their life’s work. If they got substantial tax breaks perhaps this would incentivize them to take this archive issue more seriously.

Advice to Younger Shooters

My advice to photographers in the younger age bracket out there: keep current with editing, archiving, proofing and the organization of your files; don’t let negatives or digital images pile up; be archivally-aware: make sure your files are backed up safely and or securely stored. The great thing about keeping abreast of your output is that when you reach the end of your life you don’t need to start from scratch: your archive and the various portfolios you’ve created throughout the years will be in a form readily accessible to individuals and institutions that might be interested in acquiring or doing research on your life and work. You’ll also avoid the daunting task of having to deal with the organizational nightmare of a massive backlog of images and negatives in your golden years.


I have to believe that this level of organization–employing these simple ideas–makes your work more attractive to institutions. Let me give you an example, one that I think happens often in the real world. Lets say you’ve donated a very organized collection, including numerous portfolios of finished work, to the California State Railroad Museum. All of a sudden they have a hole in their exhibition schedule they need to fill. They go to their archive: there’s photographer A’s work which is together–he’s donated matted, exhibition-quality prints to their collection; there’s also photographer B’s work, which is equally wonderful–the curator has seen a lot of this photographer’s work in print over the years–but it’s in negative form: no contacts, no prints. Which photographer’s work do you think they’re going to choose to hang? All things being equal photographer A will probably get the nod. It’s easy and it’s there and it’s not going to cost a lot of money to get up on the wall. Every museum in this country–from the most prestigious to the humblest (except for maybe MOMA or the MET)–is understaffed and under-funded. Nine times out of ten when a railroad-oriented museum (like CSRM) spends money they’re going to spend it on a piece of hardware: repainting a locomotive on display or getting one in operating condition, as opposed to getting photographs printed, matted and framed. If you’re concerned about your work being seen, and your collection being utilized then, I strongly urge you to take it upon yourself to organize it–and if you have to spend your own money to do it that’s fine; don’t depend on outside institutional forces to do so.

Finally I want to make a case for all the photographers out there between 50 and 70 years of age who might not have their archives in order. Take the time NOW to do it. You’ve dedicated a lot of energy amassing your photographic archive, and while you may ask yourself is this something I really want to bother with and accomplish before I die–I hope you’ll answer in the affirmative. Whether we realize it or not, everyone one of us has contributed to the visual record of railroading in America over the last 50 years. Future historians and researchers studying the visual culture of American railroading will want to see what you saw. Make sure they can.