If I had to do it all over again I would have been archiving from the get go. I’d be photographing and cataloging from about age ten. In those days that sort of thing didn’t even cross my mind. By the time I was in my mid twenties I was in a hopeless and irretrievable mess. I even used some of my less satisfactory paintings to catch the drips from my wonky cars. More recently, my archival incompetence was made painfully clear when we were working on Love Letters to Art. Finding reproducible copies of sold work proved difficult. So I’m hardly in the position to tell artists what to do.
Some creative folks have an excellent sense of self-worth and truly grasp the value of storing well and keeping track. I admire this. It’s not just the chronological record of finished work, it’s the reference material, notes, developmental wanderings, and eventual placement.
On my recent visit to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles I attended an exhibit of the photographer Andre Kertesz. Geographically, Kertesz (pronounced “care-tace”) had three periods: around Budapest during the First World War, around Paris in the thirties, and around New York for the rest of his life. One of the brilliant aspects of photography is the photographer’s ability to go back to old negatives and re-crop, re-dodge and reprint. Kertesz, briefly returning to France in 1963, rediscovered some of his old glass plates and 35mm (early Leica) negatives. While many were broken or degraded, he and his darkroom assistant were able to rework some of them with brilliant results. In old age, armed with a sense of his own value, Kertesz also attracted the help and advice of young archivists. These connections were to prove valuable, both for the historical understanding of photographic art and for his own rising star.
It’s a fact of life that slides degrade, prints get lost, and floppies go badly off in all directions. In the meantime the current state-of-the-art, the digital disc, can be safely copied and moved offsite without degradation. These days archives are going borderless. Software such as Inmagic (DB/Text) is an indexing and retrieval system that permits archivists anywhere to share and study the same stuff. Artists who might someday want to revisit, rethink or remake — or those just chipping away at their statues — need to give some thought to keeping track.
PS: “Photography is a unique art that allows people to go back, not only to rediscover themselves but also to get something in print for the first time.” (David Travis, Curator of Photography, Art Institute of Chicago, remarking on the process of Andre Kertesz)
Esoterica: When Kertesz hurriedly left Paris for New York in 1936, he left behind most of his negatives. Entrusted to the care of a woman, she had taken them to a country house in the south of France for wartime safekeeping. Finally tracking down the vintage material, Kertesz was provided with an enriched déjà vu and a darkroom bonanza. “An accident helped me produce beautiful effects,” he said. These days there is no reason for artists to be so accident prone.
Preservation Web Sites
The Web sites listed below represent only a small number of the preservation and related Web sites found on the Internet. They have been selected as they provide good general information and links to other sites.
CoOL – Conservation Online ; The CoOL Web site is extremely useful as a preservation resource. It is one of the most comprehensive preservation sites on the Web. This site has links to many other sites of interest such as the Western Association for Art Conservation, the Abbey Newsletter, SOLINET and many others.
Henry Wilhelm’s site ; Henry Wilhelm, the author of The Permanence and Care of Color Photographs: Traditional and Digital Color Prints, Color Negatives, Slides, and Motion Pictures continues to pursue research in the colour photography and imaging field. Research results and updates can be found here. Basic Conservation of Archival Materials: Chapter 7 – Where To Go For Help 77
Image Permanence Institute ; The Image Permanence Institute site is very interesting and should be surfed regularly to see what’s new. In their Publications section you can order publication such as “The Storage Guide for Color Photographic Materials,” A-D Strips and several other publications.
National Media Lab ; This Web site has useful information on modern media. Magnetic Media by John Van Bogart can be found here.
Research Libraries Group ; This is one section of RLG’s excellent Web site. A wide variety of information on digital imaging can be found here.
Vidipax ; Jim Lidner’s “Magnetic Media Restoration Headquarters” Web site. Of particular interest is the Video Preservation Resources section where associations and professional groups are listed in addition to online research and preservation information.
The adverse effect of archiving
by Fabián Fucci, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Heavy archiving has an adverse psychological effect that is making you look to the past. Recently, after a hard disk crash and recovery that my computer went through, I realized I hadn’t a decent backup of my latest artwork. So I’ve been backing all my data up during the last weekend, while feeling an urge of emptying my computer of really old data that I wasn’t using at all. By the time I finished the backup, I was deleting old data off my hard disk, keeping only the most recent artwork, as I was beginning to feel the heaviness and adherence of the past. Somehow, I feel I compressed in just a weekend the process that make some artists go back to their best past works and rework them over and over through the years, without producing any real new artwork. I do, however, date my CDs, DVDs, 3½ floppy diskettes, video tapes, and printouts, in a non-formal way (just the month, day, and year). I am not now cleaning up the documentation as I did in past years, as this tends to be a very tedious, dedicated, and long process, and help that psychological effect to take place.
by Kathleen Sidor, Reading, PA, USA
I’m sure you know that many early photographs, even from the most famous photographers, taken during the days of plate photography were lost when the glass photographic plates used to make the images were sold to gardeners for greenhouses. Reminds one of all of the Greek statues that were burnt for lime, or all of what today would be precious metal objects that were re-melted into something else. Not because of any willful art destruction, just because someone looked at it and thought it would be useful recycled.
Checking your progress
by Mark A. Brennan, Whitehill, NS, Canada
I have been archiving my work since the mid 1990s. Firstly using photographs and simply taking a photo of each painting. Then later I purchased a decent Epson scanner and now scan the smaller pieces and continue to photograph the larger ones in digital. At the end of each year I take all these images and place them onto CD where they can be used as a reference. Titles, sizes, medium are added at that time. I also keep track of where each painting goes. I find this tougher to do with the galleries but at least get a name and location from them. For me it’s interesting to look back on years of work, see some progress and feel a sense of accomplishment. It also helps to have this material when putting together promotional leaflets or building web sites. For me, though, the main reason for doing this is to give me an idea on how my career is going. Success comes from hard work, and if I can dig out a CD from a few years ago and see a year’s worth of art in a few minutes, there’s a little instant gratification that comes my way! Of course there is always the chance of having an opposite reaction and questioning why I hadn’t put a particular work in the wood stove and condemned it to smoke!
Advantages of the digital age
by Virginia Gardner, Earlysville, VA, USA
Four years ago I became serious about making art. I turned to my computer to research technique. My chosen method is mosaic, and I needed to learn so much. Certainly, I purchased books, but it was an online community of mosaic artists, amateur and professional, that gave me access to a remarkable wealth of information. At first I lurked… I soaked up as much information as possible. Then I jumped in, and I began asking questions and submitting my work for critique. Today, I’ve become one of the “experts” and I offer advice and tips on the “how-to” topics. I also opened a Flickr account online, one of the online photo-sharing communities. This allows me to keep an archive of photos of my work efficiently and inexpensively (and you don’t need to worry so much about the quality of your photographs, as you would if posting to a website). But it allows me to do something else: to get feedback on my work. Last night, I completed a piece, and I was determined to post it to Flickr before retiring for the evening. This morning, with coffee, I’ve already read five comments on the piece. Granted, unless you ask specifically for critique, most of the comments will be positive, but I’ve been doing it long enough that I can gauge the effectiveness of a particular piece by, 1/ the amount of attention it receives, 2/ the quality of the comments, 3/ the people who respond, and, lastly, whether or not the image gets picked up by a blog. Making art is such a solitary activity, and this ability to gain immediate feedback is, for me, invaluable.
Disadvantages of the digital age
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
You’d think I had a little shoe problem if you opened my studio closet door. The reality is I’m in The Imelda Marcos’ Hopeless School of Archiving. That’s right, shoe boxes of slides and photographs stacked in a walk-in closet on shelves dating back to 1957 when I got my first camera. Also, each box and envelope of negatives has a “keyword” or two and is dated. Since then, the world has gone almost totally digital. I fear that my image files will one day become obsolete due to another technological revolution that I can’t even imagine. Good luck trying to have a 10 year old computer fixed — Ha! You’ll be laughed out of the store. Heck, even my four year old, top-of-the-line Apple G5 that I spent a gazillion dollars on is now obsolete. It’s a brave new world and terrifying sometimes, too. That’s why I like oil paint, it lasts 5 — 600 hundred years, no problem.
Professionalism realized by archiving
by Mary Ann Pals, Chesterton, IN, USA
A side benefit from archiving one’s artwork is that, for a budding artist, it somehow legitimizes one’s self image as a professional artist. Many years ago, as I was just getting started down the professional art road, a very wise mentor told me to do two things ASAP — get business cards made, and start to archive my work (i.e. take good quality photos of each piece, title them, give them an inventory number, keep track of where they go, etc). At the time, I thought it was a waste. Who did she think I was? A professional artist? But a funny thing happened on my way to getting archived — I started to THINK of myself as a professional artist, my self-esteem got a boost, and my artwork improved. Amazing! Each time I photographed my work, it made me feel like the work was WORTH having its picture taken and being kept track of. Suddenly each piece’s value went up and its maker felt like she was doing something very worthwhile.
Vik Muniz as photographer
by Anne O’Connor, Canada
I had the good fortune to see the Vik Muniz exhibit in Montreal last fall. He found himself moving from describing himself as an artist to describing himself as a photographer. He made images and used photography to change the scale… enlarge, reduce. He also did a series called Individuals where he made a nonrepresentational sculpture with a lump of clay, photographed it, squished it, made another, photographed it, etc. 60 times. I was amazed that one could go into a project with the intention to destroy it. I formed an attachment to the ephemeral lumps of clay even though there is the photographic record.
(RG note) Thanks, Anne. Vik Muniz is the artist who made two detailed replicas of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: one out of jelly and the other out of peanut butter. He has also worked in sugar, wire, thread, and chocolate syrup. He is one of a current band who claims not to be interested in permanence, which has curators and archivists all agog.
Excel software for artists
by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA
Although I’ve always thrived on good organization, keeping track of paintings and arts involvements (shows, awards, etc) for many years was less than ideal. My archival diligence, at best, consisted of some barely adequate snapshots kept in a now old-fashioned, index-card box arranged by title (not the best system as titles are often repeated). With the advent of the computer age dawned a new age of organization. About seven years ago I adapted a file in Excel to permit cataloguing of my paintings. To keep track of individual works, a simple inventory numbering system was created. It’s very basic and consists of the year, letter (L-landscape, P-portrait, E-equine, C-canine, S-still life, F-floral), and a number (the first painting finished in January is number one, those created after that are numbered sequentially)… so my inventory list might read: 2008F1, 2008L2, 2008L3, 2008E4 and so on. For a brief while there were separate files for floral, portraits, etc, but that system was cumbersome. Now, all genres are in the one file. For now, all of the years recorded are in one file that gets renamed annually (Painting inventory 2002-08). The information that I keep track of is arranged in the columns left to right: Inventory code, Title, Media, Retail $, Date (this is redundant as the date is part of the inventory code), Canvas/Shipping $, Frame $, Photography $, Total expenses, Size, Sold (I record the amount of $ received from the sale), Location/history (where the painting is now and where it’s been–including the month and year delivered to the gallery), Sale date, Check number, Collector’s name (if provided by the gallery). My consignment sheets include my inventory code and gallery owners are requested to include the code when referring to paintings. The only improvement I’d like to make would be the inclusion of a thumbnail image of the painting beside its associated data. There is art gallery dedicated software that allows this improvement and offers more space for additional information, but the cost exceeds my desire to have it! For now, I’m very pleased with the adaptation of Excel.
Working artist software
by Susan Blackwood, Bozeman, MT, USA
After 35 years as a professional artist, I wish that I had done a better job of recording the many paintings that I have done. Four years ago I discovered the Working Artist software program. In this business we wear many ‘Hats” in order to keep painting and selling. This computer program is the one thing that has been a fabulous way to simplify my life! My husband (Howard Friedland – also an artist) and I LOVE this program! I have wanted a secretary for years and this is even better than a secretary! I can keep every thing organized for two professional artists and find anything in an instant! It keeps all the bits of info on all of our paintings (and we produce over 110 paintings a year). With this program I no longer feel the need of getting a secretary. Plus, it was designed for an artist, so it is artist friendly and very easy to use. They also have a professional staff that will stay on the line for hours if necessary to help you any time you need help. (Sounds like I would make a great sales rep. for them.) Even our galleries are impressed with our paperwork and organization. The cost is amazingly low and well worth it, even at a much higher price.
A precious book
by Nikki Soppelsa, Berea, OH, USA
I started painting, primarily with watercolor, in 2003. Along the way and after many emails of my paintings to a friend, he suggested that I keep a little book of my work. I thought it a splendid idea, an excellent way to not only keep a record of what I did, but also how and hopefully to see progress. I set to it one day photographing, scanning what I had accomplished to that time, took the work into Adobe Photoshop and along with a few minor adjustments, resized everything to a configuration of 5″x whatever proportionate measure in order to fit into a 5-1/2″x 8″ spiral sketchbook, then printed out on bright white paper/fine printing and manually cropped to size. Each ‘plate’ then adhered to the pages only at the top. In addition to the completed painting (which sometimes includes the framing when I’ve used vintage/antique), I decided to include the original/the inspiration in photo form, sometimes close-ups of portions I like best and at times the progress of the painting itself (e.g. gouache and India ink). I have kept it up-to-date since and really have taken immense delight in the ongoing creation of the little volume itself. There is great charm to me in seeing one’s work, my work much smaller, having it all contained in one place…the book quite precious to me.
The flaws of digital archiving
by Gabe Shaughnessy
It’s easy to think of digital files as archival. After all, they are just ones and zeros. However, the materials we use to store digital data are not archival, and even our best attempts at long term digital storage fall in the 30 to 100 year range. CDs, especially consumer model CD-Rs use heat to shift a dye substrate on the disk. This shift corresponds to the digital data that is burned on the CD, but unfortunately, the dye can degrade within two years on cheaper disks, and about ten years on the most expensive disks. An alternative is magnetic tapes, but even these are limited to about 100 years of storage, then the materials must be transferred to another medium. Even hard disks, although the disk itself is less likely to fail, suffer from mechanical failures that result in the media being unreadable. Digital file preservation is a short-term solution, and pales in comparison to the archival qualities of hand-made artists materials, like papers, paints and canvases. Even film and negatives, kept in the right climate, are likely to outlast their digital counter-parts stored on CDs, DVDs, and hard disks. I think in the next decade we will be faced with a serious file transfer task, as our digital media begin to skip, scratch and glitch out on us. Imagine a digital photographer, with terabytes of photos, faced with the task of printing each one to archival film, or transferring them all to another semi-archival medium. Not many of us will have the patience, or the time and resources to do that, and I imagine we could lose a great deal of our creative production as a result.
Trials of a compulsive archivist
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
I realized very early on (I was about 10) that art was a passion for me but not one that could make a living for myself and maybe a family. Sooo — I became a meteorologist after graduating from university as a nuclear physicist. They are making weather every day so there is always lots of work. Noooo, I am not making this up, it would be just too bizarre. Currently I work severe weather and training with Environment Canada. It is a good gig which will come to an end in a couple of years when I shift entirely to my art. I always did art but it was a spare time, just for fun activity. The geek computer side of me allowed me to organize and computerize the maintenance of an art database. I use Excel, Visual Basic and HTML and maintain my files with a push of a button or two. The complete art directory has grown to well over a Gig. I have a smaller version which will still fit on a CDR. As a result, I have images and text about each of my 941 works going back to about 1967. It would be an impossible job to start now but it is done. I know I spent weeks if not months of effort to get the catalogue complete but as you said, it is definitely worth it. My problem now is that some galleries do not like to tell the artist the name or even the city of any purchaser. When that happens, it makes a hole in my records and a missing link in the history of ownership — the provenance. One prominent gallery that sells a fair bit of my art absolutely refuses to give me any information and I am tempted to move on.
by Vivian Anderson, Sydney, Australia
It never comes too late to make archives, and the wonder of it is that a great change has come in my work. Our granddaughter gave me a digital camera for my 70th Christmas, and together we photographed most of my work (unknown to the world), and she encouraged me to archive the works in progress too. The attached is right side up now for the subject (SAILING), but started out as a still life the other way round, but because of the camera and record of the progress, I saw all new things in the archive and created a favourite from the inspiration of the first image (once inverted). I couldn’t have seen the possibilities without the original image. I really agree with your advice to keep records. They produce many more works when sourced for inspiration.
There are no accidents
The adire cloth artists of Nigeria feel that there are no accidents, not even what we sometimes call happy accidents. One story: An adire artist is on the ground drawing her pattern in a paste (prior to dying) that she is holding in a small bowl set next to her on the drawing surface. A goat passes by tipping the bowl over. She reaches over, not skipping a beat, and combs the spill into her overall composition with impressive results. Our language has everything to do with our perspective. Chance has its own place and can open windows for us that we may never have had the opportunity to see in any other way. You can’t MAKE it happen; one can only be open to receive, as your photographer Andre Kertesz did.
Enjoy the past comments below for Artists’ archives…
Powerplant At The Skyline
acrylic painting on canvas, 39 x 39 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Alex Nodopaka who wrote, “Thank providence that 99% has not been saved. As it is, we drown in the remaining 1% that includes its unremitting reiteration in every museum in the world and dust collecting clones on coffee tables.”
And also Steve Hovland of CA, USA who wrote, “I store my images on duplicate hard drives, and keep one of the drives outside the house to protect it from fire.”
And also Suzanne Ecclestone of Shelburne, ON, Canada who wrote, “The problem is, archiving is just plain boring!”
And also Viki Navratilova of Chicago, IL, USA who wrote, “You mention that ‘digital discs’ will keep data forever, but that is not true. Professionally printed CDs and DVDs may last for a long time, but the stuff that you burn on your home computer degrades and can become unusable in about 7 years.”
And also Lobo Hansen of WY, USA who wrote, “I photographed and numbered all my paintings from the start (about 35 years ago) simply because I am a compulsive/obsessive person.”