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|| News Item: Posted 2008-05-28

From boxes to hard drives: the importance of archiving your work
Greg Cooper discusses his emotional journey.

By Greg Cooper, Brooks Institute

Photo by Greg Cooper

Photo by Greg Cooper

Cooper's filing system is all chronological, YYYY_MM-##. Every roll of film gets a unique code based on when it was shot. He places all prints in an envelope with the same code. Any image scanned from that roll will have that code embedded in File Info.
Early on in my career I was working as an assistant for Horace Bristol (one of the original Life magazine staff photographers). Bristol and I hit it off right away and built a relationship that transcended more than just employer/employee. He became my friend and my mentor, a relationship that lasted until he died, about 10 years later.

One of the things he bestowed upon me, several times during our friendship was the importance of organizing your work, sooner rather than later. One day he pulled open one of the dozen or so drawers in a wooden dresser he kept in his house. Inside were several rows of 2 1/4 negs, stacked one layer deep, filling the drawer. This was just one drawer of about 12 in the dresser, and there was yet another filled the same.

"We get to go through these…," he said with a grin that told me that he knew what a task it would be.

Though it had been years since he had done any shooting he felt he needed to share his work, and that was never going to happen with it hidden in boxes. For Bristol, the vitality of his youth long past, sorting through stacks of negatives and prints became a priority. He had a renewed sense of urgency to see that his photography archives would not go to waste.

Perhaps it was arrogance, stupidity or just lack of maturity, but I should have taken his advice then. I recall thinking… why organize now? It's only a few boxes of prints… It won't take me that long."

Trying to find time between my full-time job is challenging but I have made the commitment to work on it every day, even if that is just five minutes.

The straw that broke the camel's back was rather a string of seemingly unconnected questions that all pointed in the same direction… I needed to tackle my film archives. Recently contacted about contributing images to an Ojai stock photography site, could I provide high-res scans with keywords? Where were the negatives from my early photojournalism? If I wanted to re-scan those images, could I find them? What year did my family go on vacation to Mount Shasta? That image of my sister Lori, did the original neg still exist? When exactly did I first pick up a 35mm SLR, was the camera mine or did it belong to a family member?

Even though the last few questions were asked at different times over the past year or so, I would later come to discover that they were connected in a big way.

Photo by Greg Cooper

Photo by Greg Cooper

On a good day in the archive process, Cooper can still get to his computer and his officemate, Anacleto Rapping, can get to his desk. Otherwise, the 20 binders of negs and eight boxes of prints occupy every square inch of desk space.
It was a monumental task and still not complete. I knew what I had to do, now I just needed to do it. Finding old work for my in-progress Website was what pushed me over the edge. All 8 boxes of 3x5 prints and 20 or so binders of 35mm negs had to be gone through - one film strip at a time if I was going to truly organize my archive.

First stop, a local camera store, where I bought 100 neg sleeves. I then brought one box of prints and negs to the office (I no longer own a light table, one at work I think…) I blew through those sleeves that afternoon and I had many more rolls to go. I knew that I had to start from the beginning but the problem was that my oldest box of work contained about 100 rolls of prints and several bags of neg strips - loosely packed with no order at all. Even though the early 1980's were several years premature in locating my early PJ work, I knew this was the place to start.

Somewhere in this box and binder of film, I would find the answers to the most personal questions - the ones that at the time I didn't think much about. She was there, as a long distant memory in my mind and in physical form as a color negative in a box of chaos, or was she?

I remember Dennis Walker saying to a group of students at Brooks during a presentation about Photo Mechanic and workflow, "thou shall caption upfront." Once again, sage advice from a pro. Captioning has never been an issue for me - but staying on top of keywords and archiving my work has.

With my digital archives updated and backed up, finishing my negative and slide archives was next. Once I organize all of the work I will then once again start scanning the images. I stopped after about 400 scans when I realized that I had no way of matching the file with the film/print files. Until I came up with a coding system to organize the film with the print with the scan, it would be counter productive to continue scanning.

Sometime into the process of matching loose film strips back into rolls and then with the prints, I found a copy negative of the image of my sister… close but no cigar. I wanted to find the original. This would take some more digging.

Photo by Greg Cooper

Photo by Greg Cooper

Lori Jo Cooper poses for a portrait in the kitchen of Cooper's mother's home in Ojai, Calif., July 1980.
Several hundred neg sleeves later I think I have come to the end of the recreating rolls of film. Without a doubt, I was able to answer most of the questions posed early on in this story but the last few still evaded me. My system of archive (digital and analog) is based on dates, so knowing when events occurred has been key to this process. Even if I couldn't figure out complete caption information, I would be able to recreate most of the facts, where, month, year, who, etc.

All but about 30 loose film strips and about 100 prints have now found a match. Most I have been able to recreate and when I am complete with pictures I know I can place and date, I will go back to those left and do my best to 'guestimate' the dates. This one strip of color neg perplexed me though. It didn't belong to any others. I pulled out my loupe (remember those? Mine has been gathering dust for some time). There it was, my sister, posing at the kitchen table under incandescent light. I had found the original neg. When was it though? Was it my oldest? Was it even shot with my camera? While peering through the loupe, I found that the wall calendar was hanging in the back. Couldn't quite make it out but I bet a high-res scan could. Eureka, July 1980. It was indeed the oldest.

My sister Lori Jo Cooper died six months after I made that snap-shot of her in our mother's kitchen. It is the last photo I have of her before she died and one of only a few that exist in my family. That image was shot on my sister's camera, which is even more appropriate since she and her work was the reason I became curious about photography.

What I found out during this process (and am still learning as I finish) is that this has been an intense emotional journey for me and that my family photos have just as much value to me as the stock and historic images of my community, the difference is they are of personal value.

(Cooper teaches photojournalism in the School of Visual Journalism at Brooks Institute in Ventura, Ca. His member page: Related links:

Related Links:
Cooper's member page
Brooks Institute

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