Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. ~Elie Wiesel
Like many, I have come to enjoy the convenience of electronic books. Certainly, in many ways, electronic reading devices will never quite replace the experience of viewing well-printed photographs, the tactile sensation of leafing through a printed book, the scent of fresh ink, the aroma of old paper, the joy of rummaging through the aisles of a used-book store, etc. However, there is no denying that the electronic format lends itself better to many practical uses, not the least of which is the ability to travel with an entire library of reference materials, as I do. It is with this intent that I set about perusing the sites of electronic book vendors wishing to acquire some of the classic texts of photography. To my great disappointment I found that practically none is currently available in electronic format.
More troubling is the fact that some of these books are also out of print, and some gained collectible status placing their used prices out of reach for many. Regrettably, it seems that those who own the rights to these books are not very motivated to sustain the legacies of their authors.
Alfred Stieglitz’s CameraWork? no. Edward Weston’s Daybooks? no. Anything by Ansel Adams? no. Minor White? no. Robert Frank? Brassai? Robert Adams? Henri Cartier-Bresson? no, no, no, and no. Aperture Magazine Anthology? hardcover only. And the list goes on. The only book on my list that I was able to find in electronic format is “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by Walker Evans and James Agee, and the only electronic version available contains embarrassing typos and no(!) photographs.
I generally consider it a distraction, perhaps even an arrogant one, for an artist to worry too much about their legacy. I find it much more productive to work not in hope of posthumous fame, but out of a desire to grasp more intensely onto the present; to sense and to feel as profoundly as one is able to; to seek meaningful encounters; and to give creative expression to those things one finds most significant about the living experience, and with as little regard as necessary to how well such expressions are accepted or preserved. Good, meaningful, work tends to find its audience. My own work and musings, for better or worse, are expressions of my life and the things I find important. Whether it is considered of value to those who will follow is for them to decide. However, as a scholar and educator, I consider it eminently important to honor and to promote the great contributions made by those whose shoulders I stand on. Also, as a practicing artist seeking to make my work and my life meaningful, inspired and productive, I find invaluable the stories, ideas, wisdom and contemplations of those who chose such lives before me. I worry that so many such contributions are in peril of being lost if those who own rights to them are not motivated to make them available in electronic format.
Photography’s nature and history present some unique challenges when it comes to the legacies of photographic artists, starting with the unusual fact that the most famous photographer in history is enormously more so than any other. Although well deserved, no photographer has ever accomplished anything resembling the celebrity of Ansel Adams. Even the works and writings of giants of photography, such as Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston, often are unknown today to the general public, and regrettably also to many present-day photographers. It is as if Picasso became so ubiquitous that few would recognize the works of Monet or Rembrandt; or as if Mozart’s popularity made Bach and Vivaldi virtually unknown. The fact that these great photographers have little or no presence in the digital world would only hasten their transition to obscurity, and we will all be poorer for it.
Consider this a plea to the Weston family, to the Adams estate, to the Center for Creative Photography, to the Aperture Foundation, and to anyone who owns rights to the works of great photographers of the past to please make the investment in making these available in electronic format.