An interview with Ben Garfinkle, President of the Foundation for Photographic Preservation. FfPP is an online resource for collections with artistic, historic, or cultural values that are in jeopardy of being lost to future generations.
What was the original idea of the founder Albert C. Weber (1930-2016)?
Al Weber got wind that the entire archive of a good friend of his who had passed, Steve Crouch, was on its way to the dumps. He intervened and saved the collection, which is now housed in the McHenry Library on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC).
As a long-time resident and educator on the Monterey Peninsula in California, Al was extremely well connected to photographers and institutions in the area. He was an early member of Friends of Photography (started by Ansel Adams and others), and had taught at most of the local colleges, including UCSC. After rescuing the work, he contacted his good friend Rita Bottoms, who was Head of Special Collections at the McHenry Library. Rita was able to get the library to accept the work. As far as I know, no money was involved. Rita was an original member of FfPP and is on our Advisory Board.
What is the process for taking on a Collection?
I want to emphasize that FfPP does not own or house any collections. Our “Collections Gallery” webpage is just intended to show a small sampling of the work done by the people we have assisted. When Al was alive, he received numerous requests for help of one sort or another to save a collection. He would sometimes put the person in contact with someone he thought could help, and other times he would personally assist. Occasionally another member would bring the photographer to FfPP or, as in my case, I helped my friend John Scarlata, and then Al asked me and my wife, Amy, to get involved with FfPP.
What increases a person’s chance of being taken on?
With Al’s passing and other key people retiring from the organization, we no longer “take on work”. We lack the expertise and time to do this. Our mission now, is stated on the home page of the website:
“Although some photographs are best preserved by individuals as family heirlooms, it is the goal of FfPP to be an online resource regarding collections with artistic, historic, or cultural value that are in jeopardy of being lost to future generations.”
Our website can actually assist more people than we ever could with our former, hands-on approach.
We want to help you help yourself by providing some of the tools that you may need to accomplish your goal. The site contains many Articles and Case Studies on the subject by people who have been involved in the process in one way or another. We are currently working on a comprehensive checklist to act as a guide to prepare you for this task. It will be available to download from our website in the next month or two.
How do you select which photographs are worth preserving for the future?
We didn’t judge whose work was worth preserving and whose was not. In the early days of FfPP, if a photographer approached us asking for help, we tried to help. We didn’t consider individual photographs. We were concerned with the photographer’s body of work and what the photographer/heir/owner of the collection was trying to achieve. Who did they want to preserve it for and why? Were they trying to generate a stream of income from sales or publishing rights, did they want to make sure it was available to the general public and historians, or perhaps they wanted to save it in a practical way for the immediate family? In the case of Richard Schlesinger, Al helped him create a book of his work to continue his legacy for his family. In this case, it was preserved for a very small audience.
We tend to think that an institution is the gold standard for preserving work, but the fact is that not all worthy collections will find their way to a museum or library. That should not diminish the intrinsic value of the collection. Finding the right home is an uphill battle unless you’re a celebrity and/or have an endowment in hand. When an archive finds a home, the work may not be as accessible as one would think or hope. We often talk amongst ourselves about the last scene in the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the crate containing the Ark of the Covenant is being wheeled down an aisle in a massive warehouse full of similar crates, never to see the light of day again. That is essentially what happened to the collection of Steve Crouch as UCSC. First, it is restricted to use by students and faculty. Then the library didn’t know where it was when someone inquired about it. It was eventually located in an off-premises warehouse, but reasonable access was not granted to a fellow photographer who, by coincidence, was the person who told Al it was on the way to the dumps.
How do you ensure the right archival process is met?
That was never our concern in terms of dealing with the artist. We had to accept that the work was processed the way it was, regardless of that aspect. We have provided a comprehensive library of information on this topic on our Resources pages.
Have you helped any famous photographers?
Fame was never a criterion for Al. Steve Crouch, the author of Steinbeck Country, was the person that got Al started in this endeavor. He was well known in the Monterey community, but most followers of photography are not aware of who he was. Others Al and FfPP have assisted are Oliver Gagliani, Philip Hyde, Pirkle Jones, Morrie Camhi, Milton Halberstadt and David Drew Zingg.
Which are your favorite photographs in the FfPP Collections Gallery?
I picked one each from our current Collections Gallery on the website:
- Ceiling Ruin, Colorado Plateau by Ray McSavaney (see below)
- David Ramirez, prisoner, 1987, by Morrie Camhi
- Untitled (Guggenheim), Photograph by Richard Schlesinger (see below)
- Laguna Seca, by Jerry Lebeck
- Cinderhinge, Avon, NC, by John Scarlata,
- Untitled (Trumpet Player) Photograph by M Halberstadt
- Horsetail Falls by Don Abelson
Do you have any advice for photographers wishing to preserve their work for the future?
Get organized, cull your collection, put a plan in place, discuss it with your family if appropriate, and execute it. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to hire an archivist to help with the organization, an appraiser for estate purposes or if a donation is contemplated, or attorneys to discuss copyright protections, negotiate a transfer of materials or prepare documents covering the disposition of the archive. Some collections may have real or perceived monetary value, and things can get pretty ugly when money is involved. Having a well-thought-out plan will go a long way to achieving a good outcome. As you can see, it can be a big undertaking. Hopefully, our checklist will be a useful tool for getting started and staying on track.