How Do You Want to Be Remembered as a Photographer?

Let’s face it, you are a good photographer, but your chances of being celebrated for your photography 50 or more years from now are slim. But what can you do to increase your chances of being remembered?

The History of Being Remembered

There is a basic human longing for us to be celebrated long after we are gone. Graves are marked with stones and names of the dead are etched onto them in the vain hope that they will be remembered forever.

The greater the positive impact on others’ lives, the more effort goes into creating monuments to the dead: the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, the Anglo-Saxon burial mounds in the UK, the Taj Mahal, the Lincoln Memorial, the gravestones in war cemeteries, statues, and stone plaques embedded in buildings, and so on, they all preserve the names of those who, at the time of their death, were considered deserving of our remembrance. Of course, now there is a debate whether monuments to some historical figures should be removed as we reconsider whether their overall negative contribution to humanity outweighs the good they did for a community or a country.

The vain hope that we will be remembered forever.

Putting It in Perspective

Looking at the human timeline: you are the successful outcome of 200,000 years of your ancestors successfully breeding. A million generations of ancestors were responsible for your existence. How many of them could you name? Not many, I would bet. Three generations? Maybe four? It's a sobering thought that your great, great, great-grandchildren probably won't know who you were either.

But what about your photographs? Assuming no major disasters, your images will certainly get preserved for many years after you are gone. Of the 1.3 trillion photos that were shot last year and 1.2 trillion the year before, billions were uploaded to Facebook and other social media. These corporations will hold an incredible resource for the social historians of the future. In 2121, your great, great, great, great-grandchildren may be sitting in their holographic school, pouring over your Instagram feed to get a clue what life was like in the olden days, although I do wonder what our descendants will think we had plastic-looking skin and bunny ears and will be curious about that odd, blue graininess that hung in the air.

Yes, you may well be remembered in that way, but your digital memorial will be a drop in the Noachian flood of other images out there. Furthermore, in five generations, you will be just one of 32 ancestors. Like most of your ancestors, you too will probably be forgotten.

Putting it in perspective, most of us will be forgotten within a handful of generations.

Learning From the Greats

Would you like to be as well-known to future generations as James Presley Ball, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, or Linda McCartney are remembered today? If so and you are following current trends, it is possible that you are approaching it from the wrong direction. You are more likely to be forgotten.

Those famous names did not spring up from nowhere. Besides the dedication, learned talent, and hard work, behind each great photographer, there were supportive driving forces that helped them along. When I read the biographies of any great photographer, there were people and institutions in their backgrounds that inspired and helped them achieve success. For example, Henri Cartier-Bresson was encouraged in his photography by Caresse and Harry Crosby. Prior to that, as a painter, the writer René Crevel urged him on and introduced him to the surrealists that greatly influenced his work.

The great landscape photographer Ansel Adams was helped by a string of people with his creativity. Likewise, Linda McCartney was taught the trade by David Dalton. Going right back to 1845, James Presley Ball learned the photographic trade from John B. Bailey.

Using Their Position To Do Good

These great photographers were also known for the good they did, through humanitarianism, conservation, and animal rights. They selflessly used their position as respected photographers to help improve the world around them. Indeed, most of the late photographic greats are celebrated today both for the help and inspiration they received and because of the help they gave others. Besides the names of the great photographers being celebrated, those who went out of their way to help them become great are remembered too.

How will future generations remember you, if at all?

Where Many Are Going Wrong

Things seemed to have changed in society. Many photographers have a distrustful insularity and show a lack of support to others. They guard their techniques with jealousy, unwilling to share their knowledge, and are too quick to put other photographers down. Worse, they spout bile and hatred in response to others’ creative works, be it photography, art, writing, or any other creative pursuit. They treat photography like it's a competition, and they consider that their only way of winning is to denigrate others.

This is apparent in some but not all photography clubs worldwide. Some judges are harsh in their critiques and have no empathy for those whose photos they are assessing. A while ago, one of my clients mentioned how her young daughter had her confidence destroyed by unsympathetic comments made by a club judge. It put her off photography for good.

Another professional photographer I know tells a similar story. He notices that some club judges deliberately undermine their closest competition. He believes this is an attempt to bolster their own position. I thought of this when, later, a friend of mine with a natural eye for photography continuously submitted what I thought were great photos to her local club competitions. I liked her work and considered them original and truly outstanding. However, she never won a prize. Subsequently, I searched through the historical submissions and winners on her camera club’s website. The judge seemed never to choose the same photos that I would. At first, I did wonder whether this was down to subjectivity but concluded otherwise after discussing the results with other photographers. Interestingly, my friend now earns a living at photography while the judge disappeared into obscurity. Karma, perhaps.

A year later, another photographer I know on the far side of the world visited a club for the first time. He was amazed by the quality of a photo from another new member. However, the judge then proceeded to poke holes in the picture, finding nothing good to say about it at all. My acquaintance, an outspoken character, gave the judges a piece of his mind and left.

Of course, not all photography club judges are like that. There are those who are gentle in their critiques and, most importantly, find what is good about a photograph. They then go on to tutor others and help them improve. There are also art teachers in schools who inspire children to explore their creativity. Youth leaders, TV presenters, business owners, and amazing, ordinary people in the community all play their part in helping others along.

The world is filled with amazing people.

Artists Against the Odds

Although I think being mean about other creative talents is more prevalent now, it isn’t a new phenomenon. However, it’s satisfying to know that, although artists are remembered, the critics are not. Furthermore, true talent can break through without support. The artists Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, El Greco, Gaugin, Cezanne, and Lowry were all rejected by establishment figures, criticized for lack of artistic quality by long-forgotten experts who made misguided and sometimes cruel judgements about their creativity. Sometimes, that breakthrough arrives too late. Imagine how different van Gogh’s story might have been if he had been encouraged and supported by the artistic establishment during his lifetime. How many more years of his brilliant creativity we would have if the artistic community had been sympathetic and encouraging?

Do You Want to Be Remembered?

So, instead of posing my question "how do you want to be remembered," perhaps I should have asked: "Do you want to be remembered?" If the answer to that is yes, then maybe the answer is not only to seek out help but to give it generously. Don’t be mean in your critiques or comments, but kind and supportive.

Even though you probably won’t be remembered for your fantastic photography — very few are — your name has a far better chance of being recorded as someone who helped encourage a photographic prodigy to reach the top of their game. What could be more rewarding to your descendants than them knowing that about you?

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39 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

Take pictures that people cherish and want to keep.

Tom Reichner's picture

Ivor,

This is a really good article that encourages constructive introspection. Thank you!

I don't think that I really care if people remember me or think about me when I am gone. But I very much want people to think about the wild animals that I love so much; the subjects of my photos.

I would love it if people see my photos long after I am dead, and that looking at my photos causes them to appreciate the wild animals more. Maybe seeing some of my photos will make someone want to go see a wild Bighorn Sheep for themselves ... or witness the ethereal mating dance of a Sage Grouse, or climb high into the rocky alpine slopes to see a Pika first hand!

I care very much what people think about wildlife, but I don't really care that much what they think about me. In fact, after I'm dead it doesn't really matter if people are inspired by my wildlife photos, or by other people's wildlife photos. As long as they are inspired by someone's wildlife photos, that is all that matters. The photos themselves matter, and the subjects in the photos matter, but the person who took the photos does not matter.

What matters is that more people get excited about nature and wildlife and want to spend time in the wilderness themselves, that is all that really matters. I myself ..... do not really matter, in the grand scheme of things.

J.d. Davis's picture

The reality will likely be quite different no matter what you do. Many spouses of artists and photographers alike will hire dumpsters once their loved ones decease . And, your grandchildren are unlikely to treasure your hard work anymore than they want the heavy brown furniture your parents left to you.

Unless you are approached (in your lifetime) by a gallery, museum or university, there is little chance of your work being preserved. Not even awards, unless it is a Pulitzer are likely to garner immortality.

Enjoy life as you can but never bank on being famous!

Tom Reichner's picture

J. D. Davis said,

"Unless you are approached (in your lifetime) by a gallery, museum or university, there is little chance of your work being preserved."

I'm not so sure about that.

I still come across photos taken by Leonard Lee Rue back in the 1970s and 1980s. I find them in old hunting magazines that me and my friends still have around. We collect them and read them for old time's sake. His photos are also in many books about Whitetail Deer, both books that he published and those in which his photos were used as stock images.

I also see Leonard's photos all over the internet. Just Google "Leonard Lee Rue deer" and you will get countless results. Leonard is still alive, but at the age of 95, he hasn't been out photographing professionally for some years ... or at least not to the extent that he used to. And yet his images are still used all over the place, and I have no reason to think that this usage will stop when he passes.

I myself sell my wildlife photos as stock images, and they have been used in countless books, magazines, calendars, websites, advertisements, etc. I see my photos at the magazine rack, the book store, on beer ads, on product packaging at WalMart, on countless websites, posters, and even etched onto tombstones!

My point is that these days, one does not need to be approached by a gallery, museum, or university in order for one's work to be used prolifically. And once one's work is used thousands of times, on thousands of different products, then the sheer numbers will ensure that some of it persists to be seen by future generations.

Ivor Rackham's picture

J.D. Davis, you are right about the material stuff we leave behind - nobody is remembered for that. Apart from the Hitlers and Stalins of this world, it's usually the good stuff people do in life that results in them being remembered; helping others achieve success.

J.d. Davis's picture

My wife is doing our family trees. Her family can be traced to the 1550's mine (because of immigration name change) starts in 1896.

Please believe me when I tell you that none of my ancestors are memorable...no bank robbers, outlaws or civic leaders - just dead people.

Ivor Rackham's picture

I do believe you. But just think. You are the successful outcome of 200,000 years of continuity, a million generations of humans. That's pretty amazing. Even more so if you count back before human life to the 3.5 billion years since life formed on Earth, you are the result of an extremely unlikely chain of events. That must be worth celebrating.

J.d. Davis's picture

I'm a random product of people I don't know having unprotected sex? Made my day, that did!

Ed C's picture

You must be a lot of fun at parties. On the other side of the gloom and doom, no joy spectrum I continue to enjoy lots of photography taken by people who have never been famous. If you take a 19th or 20th century view of the world maybe you are right. I prefer the 21st century reality where the internet makes many things available to many random people for the foreseeable future.

J.d. Davis's picture

I AM lots of fun at parties - sadly, you will never be invited so you will never know!

Ed C's picture

Thank God for small favors. You seem to have a very dour outlook on life.

J.d. Davis's picture

Actually more sanguine.

David Moore's picture

No one is going to remember me so whatever.

Tom Reichner's picture

David Moore said:

"No one is going to remember me so whatever."

Can you imagine that being the little saying that is etched onto someone's tombstone?!

As far as headstone epithets go, that's right up there with, "I told you I was sick".

Stuart C's picture

Hadn't really thought about it to be honest. As an Amateur who mainly uses photography just to get out of the house im not really fussed if im ever remembered for my photography.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Which is fair enough, Stuart. It's a good mindset to accept what is, and the process of capturing a photograph is more important to a lot of photographers than achieving the image itself.

Stuart C's picture

Very true Ivor, and that’s pretty much what it means to me.

Matthew Johnson's picture

I feel like the object of photography isn't to be remembered. I think the art form should take precedence. Did I miss the point of the article?

Ivor Rackham's picture

In the article, I suggest that it is a broadly accepted human desire to be remembered after we die. It might not be everyone's wish, but for many it is. If someone is a photographer, then it stands to reason that they probably want to be remembered for their photography. This isn't true of everyone, and you are right, I don't think it is a valid motivation for creating any art. But, I hold the belief that helping others along the road to success is a noble thing to be remembered for.

Matthew Johnson's picture

Good point. Becoming an inspiration to someone else's success seems like a noble goal!

RT Simon's picture

Specialize. Publish. Archive. Endow.

Specialize.Make a subject your own.
Publish. Publish at least one book on that subject. Get them into libraries.
Archive.Create an archive before you no longer can.
Endow. Find an institution to endow your archive to.

This is not about fame or even being remembered. It is about contributing to a historical record.

Now I experimented a little bit with interactive AI apps. It occurred to me that there could be a market for an AI program to learn to manage an archive. Learn the content in the photos, be able to automatically caption, reorder, search, curate, an archive of 50K photos, and be operable with voice.

The photographer would need to train it in the process of passing on relevant information.

But ultimately the goal would be to act as the photographer’s proxy or avatar after they are gone.

Wouldn’t that be a cool use of AI for people like us?

Ivor Rackham's picture

Sounds like you should develop that app!

I like the sound of your system, and in the article I talk about our photos being the important historical records of the future.

However, they will be lost in the flood of the trillions of others. But, I suspect in the future, your descents will be able to ask their AI to find pictures of you on certain days, and link it to photos of others near you from social media archives, without any curating. It will piece it all together from tiny clues in the images, metadata, location data and social media posts.

RT Simon's picture

I am not a software developer. I have created several archives over 40 years, (which have nothing to do with family), but external events in the world. As an example, over 40 years, people who appear, over years, age. AI could be trained to find particular faces, and even map their age over their years of participation. When I am dead, the descendent of a performer could access my AI powered archive and create timelines of their ancestors.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Take your idea to a software developer and work in partnership with them! I think you are onto something. :)

chris bryant's picture

Dying in totally tragic circumstances may help!

Les Sucettes's picture

Here is a question: why do you even care?

Tom Reichner's picture

Some people have this thing where they care about what people will think about them after they are dead. I think it's called a "legacy". I don't understand that mindset and value system, but evidently there really are people who care about it.

I suspect that those people also care about what people think of them now, while they are living, as well. Some people just cant help but to care about what others think. They are called "people pleasers" or "egotists"

Les Sucettes's picture

Or Narcissists, or simply: immature.

Once when I was 12 or something (ok maybe up to early 30s) I also cared what others think.

I suspect that big artists don’t give AF. Which is a pre-requisite to being a great artist. Or at least a very useful one.

So in fact I’d give the total opposite advise in terms of building a legacy. It’s only really a hunch - since I don’t have one. But my hunch is, if you want a legacy, do what you want to do and forget everyone around you and, indeed, the fact that you are even trying to build a legacy. The less you think about it, and the less narcissistic you are, the better.

Joseph Weisbrod's picture

Thank you Ivor, for asking the question.
Do I really want to post into this discussion? No, I really don’t. Discussion sites are full of disembodied humans that would NEVER say in person what they say here. Yet, in spite of that, photography is PRECISELY about creating images that outlast their makers. The practice of photography should drive the creators to make images that outlast them.
So here is my humble contribution. If you don’t want to be remembered, don’t open the shutter. If you believe that future generations will not care, find a different profession. If you believe that allowing others to see through your eyes is vanity, become a hermit. If capturing and freezing a moment in time is hollow and worthless, then close your eyes, and never speak about them again.
You CAN, however, archive your work into a trust, donate them to an historical society, ask a museum to curate your work, create your own foundation, ask a librarian how they preserve the long term existence of valuable articles, or donate to future generations through your offspring’s offsprings. None of these are without risk, and none are a complete solution. But the search and the journey are often more enlightening — and fulfilling — than the outcome or the destination.

Tom Reichner's picture

Joseph Weisbrod said,

" ..... photography is PRECISELY about creating images that outlast their makers."

I disagree.

I think that photography, for many, is about the process itself. The task of going out and taking photos. It matters little to these people how great or how ordinary the images are. What matters is that they got to spend time taking photos, and that act in itself is enjoyable to them, regardless of what the results are.

For many others, it is about the images themselves, and the ability to enjoy them. I am in this category. I love it when I get a good photo that looks the way I want it to look - a photo that I think is beautiful and that I enjoy looking at. I enjoy not only the ability to view the photos that I take, but the sense of accomplishment that comes with being the one who created the beautiful photo.

But I couldn't care less what other people think after I die. I don't really care if my photos are "saved" for future generations or not. I just care about me and my own ability to enjoy the way my photos look and the personal sense of accomplishment that comes with being the one who took them.

Tom Manuccia's picture

Another reason for not being remembered as a photographer is simply the incredible number of images being taken and put online every day.

Statistically, it’s almost impossible for any individual to stand out from the other zillion talented people contributing to this massive influx of images unless you distinguish yourself in ways other than pure photographic quality.

Charles Mercier's picture

Funny, I was just thinking about the sheer number of great shots out there thing too. It's more true now more than ever that one needs something else also to be remembered.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I've been building up an enviable collection of images which represent life in London for nearly two decades and have another 10-15 years to go.

The plan is to have 400-500 images archived as fine art prints on archival paper / ink as A2 sized prints.

So I started to look around for institutions who would want to curate this collection in 15 years. I started with the usual (British Library, British Museum etc...) and worked my way down from there.

So far I've been met with total apathy. No one is remotely interested so far. Not even so far as wanting to see any of the collection to date. (Easily seen in a limited book edition that I can show). It seems many organisations hold little value to historical photographic images unless there is a famous signature on them.

It's not just me - they tell me they're generally not interested.

Hopefully I'll find someone who shows enthusiasm, but I fear our entrusted historical organisations are going to look back on a woeful approach to recording our modern history.

I'm not interested in being famous and it will never happen. But I see some of the photography I do as having some small level of historical interest. I'd hope that in 100 years someone might just look on a few of my images to make them think about days of past.

We have billions of images taken every day - most to be lost the second that iPhone gets replaced, or quickly disappearing into the wash of Facebook. Sometimes there can be so much, that there is nothing to find of worth.

J.d. Davis's picture

No one you contacted - so far - will be in the same workplace in 15 years.

Lee Christiansen's picture

This is true. My enquiries were because I want to have an idea of what may be the best way to archive things.

The problems come not from the people, but from the systemic approach and policies of the institutions. I'll be trying them again in 15 years.

I just didn't want to be preparing things in a certain way if they were way off base for what would be better for curation.

Charles Mercier's picture

Your problem will be that in 15-20 years, if not sooner, technology and AI will be in a state where anyone can make a photo (video too) look like any period with anything or any action and no one will be able to distinguish between the real one and the created one.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Lee, I can see from your website that you take fantastic photos worthy of a gallery. 400-500 A2 prints is quite a collection and for the archivist would mean a lot of expensive storage, and it would need you to have an instantly knowable name in the industry to make that a proposition worth considering for them.

In this digital age, with so many photographers and so many images, getting a name is increasingly difficult to achieve. Short of the 'lucky break out of the blue', which happens more rarely than a lottery jackpot win, it's down to the hard work of promoting yourself, putting on your own exhibitions, badgering small galleries and then growing.

John Green's picture

Ivor, I notice that no one else,so far, has commented on the encouragement that you can get from camera clubs and individual photographrrs, but also how easily how one can be discouraged by comments from judges especially those who are members of the same club where images by particular members are nearly always selected.
I remember being told that I should have got in closer - this was in response to a shot I had taken in a wild life reserve on a film camera with the largest lens I then had. I remember being very disappointed. However I did learn a lot from seeing the work of other photographers. Today one can easily learn from others by asking questions about the kit they were using and the setup, and of course we can easily look at all the EXIF data on the image which we couldn't do with images we took 40 years ago.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Very good point, John. I think it is so important for photographers to support one another. BTW, I've just checked out your gallery, and you have some fine shots there. I hope we can see some more.