Don’t Discard Old Photos; They Could Be Your Retirement Fund

Even at a time when digital storage is cheap and plentiful, many photographers don’t think beyond the immediate compensation they receive from a magazine, book publisher or assignment client. To save storage space — or remove mental “clutter” — many photographers continue to discard “outdated” images. In doing so, they could be tossing out an annuity fund for their retirement.

In the early days, many photographers had agreements with their publishers that ownership of purchased photos would revert back to the photographer after three years. This was in the days before the revision of copyright law decreed that copyright ownership now stays with the photographer. In its previous form, the copyright law transferred copyright to whoever bought a “use” right to a photo.

Unfortunately, in those earlier days photographers often didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to reclaim their photos. They were busy with new projects, so the original negatives and transparencies, lying dormant in files at book companies, newspapers, and magazines, were sometimes discarded by an inexperienced clerk to make room for contemporary work. What could have been an annuity for a photographer disappeared into the dumpster.

Of course, some organizations had the foresight, manpower, and funds to catalog and save everything. One example is Time Inc. The company’s files of photos chronicle the life and times of America since 1936; its latest count of images was 21,000,000, kept in its climate-controlled library at the base of Rockefeller Center in New York.

When the former director of the Time-Life library, Beth Zarcone, gave me a tour of their collection, I saw youthful pictures of Muhammad Ali (at least 13 books have been written about him in the last decade), Frank Sinatra, astronaut John Glenn, Eleanor Roosevelt, and countless others. These were pictures taken by long-gone photographers who never thought about the legacy they were creating on film.

Recently, I had a talk with Flip Schulke, famed Black Star photographer best known for his photography during the Martin Luther King Jr. era and the subsequent years of political unrest. He told me, “As a young photographer in the 60’s, I didn’t throw anything away. After all, I thought of my pictures as my kids. Who gives their kids away?” As a result, Flip has a deep selection of outtakes from his assignments and self-assignments.

“Today, I’m making more money from those pictures than I did back when I took them,” says Flip. His books and photos on Martin Luther King Jr. have earned in the six figures. A recent sale to a major TV network for a TV special netted $24,000 in one month.

“Stock photographers should realize that their editorial photos serve as a pension, an annuity, as you get older,” Flip says. “When you’re an editorial stock photographer, everything becomes history.”

[tags]digital archiving, photography tips, Rohn Engh[/tags]

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