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Photographic Memoirs

Is there value in creating a photographic memoir, even if your work is unknown? I think so—and here are my reasons for it.

Here’s a thought I’ve been having lately. I think it’s a valuable practice for all photographers to create a photographic memoir of some sort. It could be a digital archive or a Word document with images and thoughts. You could print a book, or even a series of books, to document different phases of your photography. The format doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that you document your photographic history.

Why should photographers do this, you ask? Well, many might consider this a useless vanity. I may even have thought that at one point or another. The logic goes like this: Memoirs are only for famous people or people who are somehow notable. If we’re not famous or haven’t done or documented something notable, then creating a memoir is an act of self-aggrandizement, right?

A person could certainly approach it that way, I suppose. But that’s not the way in which I intend to approach the subject of photographic memoirs. Rather, I think that creating a memoir can be useful in at least a couple of different ways.

To start with, it can be useful and meaningful to your family—especially future generations. As a genealogy buff myself, I know how difficult it can be to learn more about your ancestors. But the people descended from you will want to know what your life was like, and a collection of photographs is perhaps the ideal way to illustrate that. Unlike Census records which might have many people of the same name and similar ages, this is something that can become an incontrovertible record of your life and the things you did.

More than that, it’s something filled with meaning. In creating a photographic memoir—a book of art deeply personal to you, essentially—you’re speaking to future generations about not only what you do with your life but who you are. It’s a wonderful insight that has the potential to become a valuable part of your family’s history.

Another reason to create a memoir is that, quite frankly, the overwhelming majority of photographers fade into posthumous obscurity. Of course, creating a memoir doesn’t guarantee fame, and in fact, the likelihood of becoming a household name because of it is incredibly low.

But even so, I have to think of photographers like Vivian Maier. She was one of the ones to have her work discovered by the right people and displayed. How many others are out there? How many attics full of negatives, hard drives full of data, and closets full of prints exist out there? These things vanish at yard sales or into the garbage, and then who knows what happens to it? Often, it’s just gone forever.

A memoir, I think, is a neat solution to get around this issue. Not many people have the space or desire to keep the boxes upon boxes of photographic history left to them by their ancestors—particularly when those ancestors may be a generation or two removed. But almost everyone has the space to add an extra book or three to their bookshelves, especially if those books are pieces of family history.

There’s yet another reason to create a memoir, one that deals more with your own personal development. The thing is, when you create a record like this—a timeline—it gives you a way to see where you’ve been. From there, you can perhaps glean where you're going.

As photographers, we all have phases that we go through, faults that become habitual, and so on. In creating a memoir, you may discover yourself repeating the same mistakes again and again without noticing. Your memoir points these things out to you so that you can make improvements.

Or maybe you started out creating portraits because that was your passion, and eventually, that turned into street photography, which grew into architectural photography. And then, one day on an architectural outing, you found the coolest abandoned building, so you spent some time photographing derelict things in general—not just architecture but cars, parks, and whatever else you could find.

We all follow these sorts of cycles one way or another. Creating a photographic memoir allows you to lay it all out in order. Looking at that timeline can inspire you. Perhaps you discover gaps that you'd like to fill, or maybe you'd like to revisit something you did in the early years now that you have more experience and better equipment. It can even be a valuable way to remember and reflect on lessons once learned but forgotten.

There are many good reasons to create a memoir, and not all have to do with fame or vanity. Try it, and you may end up thanking yourself.

Now go and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation through your lens.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.