The late Bill Jay, a prolific writer about art – mostly photography – said (and I can’t find the exact quotation) that many so-so artists would become famous if they destroyed 90% of their work.
Mark Twain burned a great deal of his draft materials and false starts before his death. He didn’t want historians “rummaging through his trash” and publishing material that he had abandoned.
Picasso kept darn near everything and the historians are still quibbling about what they are finding.
Bill Jay also noted that there are four types of artists. The first is the type who stumbles about until they find a “groove”, make wonderful pieces then stays in that groove for the rest of their career recapitulating previous successes. He calls out Ansel Adams as an example.
The second type is the artist who finds a groove, works it until the vein of gold is exhausted and then finds another groove – either by medium (Picasso) or subject matter (Sabastião Selgado, look him up – what set me to thinking about this issue is that he just received a Lifetime Achievement award and an honorary doctorate from Harvard).
The third type is the artist who never exhausts the vein of gold and continues to produce wonderful pieces for their entire career – Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, photographer Jerry Uelsmann.
The fourth type just stumbles along. Ted Orland (another prolific writer about art) says that “The only purpose of 99% of what you do is to get to the 1% that sings.” That’s me.
As I write this I’m looking at three shelves of three-ring binders full of pages of negatives – roughly 50,000 of them. I can also see other shelves of black portfolio boxes containing roughly 500 finished prints. Hmmm, sounds like 1% to me.
What comes next? I doubt very seriously that some future historian will pour over my negatives seeking overlooked gems. I doubt very seriously that there are any needles in that haystack anyway.
Then, only last week, I got an email from my 55 year old daughter reminding me of a photograph that I took of her when she was 16 and wondering if I could make another copy for her – and I could.
Life is such a puzzle.