Concerned About Your Photographic Legacy? Look to APAG for Help
Above photograph: Harlem Merchant, 1937 © Estate of Morris Engel
What to do with all the pictures? This is one of the thorniest questions facing an active image maker with a sizable, and probably still growing, collection of photographs and/or motion footage, plus other contributing materials that add context to a life behind the lens. In an ideal world, as pictures accumulate, a collection evolves into an archive; yet many photographers lack awareness of this concept until far too late in life. Another daunting hurdle to this process is the discipline for organizing a lifetime of visual output.
Anyone who finds this to be a familiar concern needs to know about the American Photography Archives Group (APAG), a professional organization for people handling private photo collections, photo-related archive professionals, and photographers actively earning income from fine art or editorial work who are working on their own archives.
All other photographs © Grayson Dantzic, All Rights Reserved
Group photo of APAG members and attendees at the 2017 APAG seminar, ICP, NYC, 2017
Founded in 2000, APAG is the brainchild of Mary Engel, who assumed responsibility for the archive of her mother, noted photographer and filmmaker Ruth Orkin, when she died, in 1985. Just out of college at the time, Engel immersed herself in learning about intellectual property rights, conservation and preservation, promotion, and the world of photography galleries and dealers. After gaining a wealth of knowledge about handling her mother’s estate, she subsequently inherited the archive of her father, award-winning filmmaker and photojournalist Morris Engel, when he died, in 2005.
As her experience with archival management grew, Engel became an informal consultant, sharing her wisdom with families of other photographers or estate holders who found themselves in similar situations. Before long, she decided that organizing a dinner with these newfound colleagues would save time and allow everyone to benefit from each other’s experience. This core group included Grayson Dantzic, son of photographer Jerry Dantzic, and now APAG’s executive vice president; Jean Bubley, niece of photojournalist Esther Bubley; and Annie (Rothstein) Segan, daughter of photographer and educator Arthur Rothstein.
“Basically, the reason for the group is to share information, because there’s no magic handbook that tells you what to do when you inherit a photography estate,” says Engel (who has since written just such a handbook). “And if you inherit a well-known photography estate, you inherit lots of photos, scrapbooks, letters, papers, it’s endless. It’s a big responsibility.”
As word spread about Engel and the helpful resources she offered, the number of dinner guests grew, until it was clear that a larger, more focused meeting space was needed. After gathering for several years at the School of Visual Arts, in 2007 Engel arranged to hold meetings at the school of the International Center of Photography (ICP), where the group has gathered ever since for regular meetings, which usually include a lecture from an expert in the field. In 2011, APAG became a 501 (c) (3) non-profit corporation, allowing the organization to offer paid memberships and expand on its resources and member benefits.
Currently, APAG counts 82 individual photographers, 72 archives, 4 foundations and 35 different archivists, gallerists, institutions, and students among its active membership. Recent member events have included visits to view important New York-area archives, and a presentation by certified photo appraiser Jennifer Stoots, who provided key insights about the various types of photography appraisals and their differing approaches to value as part of APAG’s latest member meeting.
Non-members are welcome to attend APAG’s most ambitious outreach, a two-day educational seminar, which the organization has held regularly since 2014. Attendees converge from across the country to gain knowledge and inspiration from fifteen or more subject experts who touch on issues of archiving, curating, critical writing, collections and estate management, copyright and legal issues, library science, marketing and promotion, and more.
Some notable soundbites from APAG’s third seminar, in spring 2017, included guidance from collector and educator Alice Sachs Zimet, who outlined the initial steps to thinking about a photographic archive as follows.
“Go inward and think strategically: What is my objective? Be honest. [Are you looking for] a quick fix? [Do you want to] monetize fast? Think you are sitting on a gold mine? Long term: Do you want to nurture a legacy? Think through a strategy: Where do you want the archive to go or be seen? What do you have? Can you explain it in print? Can you describe your brand? What and/or who are the right connections? What are you trying to do and how are you going to get there?”
Later, photo critic and historian A.D. Coleman classified archives by differentiating between a heap and a hole. After offering a quote from French writer and Picasso biographer Pierre Daix, stating, “In order to pursue any kind of scholarship you need everything,” Coleman suggested, “Think long and hard before you throw anything away and ask for advice from people who know and work with archives.”
In closing, he addressed the matter from a historical perspective, advising, “Don’t muddy the waters between the work and the mulch heap that built up during a photographer’s lifetime. Once the artist dies, the work belongs to the world. You do the work a disservice by censoring it.”
In another panel, covering what institutions are looking for and how they build collections, Leslie Squyres, senior archivist at the Center for Creative Photography, reinforced the value of ancillary materials to a photographer’s archive by identifying this list of items of potential interest, beyond the photographs themselves:
Correspondence: Letters to and from colleagues in the arts
Diaries and Journals: Showing a day-to-day view of ideas, activities, travels, sales, exhibitions and choices.
Writings: Published and unpublished
Exhibition materials and scrapbooks
Teaching materials: Lecture notes and syllabi (but not teaching slides or grades)
Research files: Annotated books and notes
Publications by and about the artist
Financial records related to the work: Proof of sale, invoices, receipts, lists, and ledgers
Photographs, slides, contact prints and negatives of the artist, family and friends, of studio, darkroom, etc.
Finally, Robert Gurbo, curator of the Estate of André Kertész, had this to say during a panel on the Legacy of an Archive. “The best thing anyone can do is to organize it really well and know when to get out of the way. Don’t present your overlay [on the material]; everyone has their own perspective,” he added. “Learn the material, learn your role in it, and know when to step back.”
As a supplement to the 2017 seminar, Engel published the 70-page Photo Archive Handbook, available for purchase from the APAG website. Featuring short articles on a range of topics from Copyright Law in Cyberspace to Best Practices in Managing Photography Archives, the handbook also includes lists of professional resources and museums throughout the United States.
In October 2017, Engel’s passion for helping photographers and forging connections was aptly acknowledged when her work on behalf of APAG was recognized with a Spotlight Award by the Griffin Museum of Photography. Judith Thompson, APAG member and director of the Harold Feinstein Photography Trust, had this to say when presenting Engel with the award. “[Mary] has built an organization based on her experience, and she has invited others to contribute with their own discoveries, making APAG an evolving community of insight, knowledge and resources.”
Upcoming APAG Events
Looking to the season ahead, APAG has carved out a significant presence in the upcoming photography calendar of both New York and San Francisco, where the organization launched a new West coast affiliate, in April 2018.
On Friday morning, September 14, APAG will lead off Photoshelter’s Luminance talks at Brooklyn’s Photoville festival, in a panel comprising Engel, photographer and philanthropist Susie Katz, and APAG Vice President Julie Grahame. Join them from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m., as they discuss the importance of archiving, the best techniques and platforms to use, and how to start thinking about the legacy you’ll leave behind.
On October 14, 2018, APAG West will hold its first one-day symposium at the University of California, Berkeley School of Journalism, featuring a mix of panels, break-out sessions, case studies, and general discussion.
Finally, to wrap up an eventful year, APAG’s fourth two-day seminar will be held over the weekend of December 8 – 9, 2018, at the School of the International Center for Photography on Sixth Avenue and 43rd Street. Watch the APAG websitefor details about how to register.