Monday, 30 June 2008

Exiting the business

I have just heard that a friend who is only 45 has been diagnosed with cancer. They have good prognosis but it makes you think. Sadly I have known several young people that have died prematurely. I've been thinking what the hell will my kids do with all my photos when I'm gone?

In the mid nineties I was once asked to appraise a collection of theatre photos, some fifty years work belonging to an old photographer who had done just about everybody. His son, who like me then lived in the USA, asked me on one of my trips to the UK to visit his dad and see if anything could be done with his collection.

When the old man had retired some twenty years before he had spent a few years supplying magazines and publishers that knew him but, with little income to invest in marketing and with his contacts retiring one by one like him, the income from his archive eventually dropped to nothing. He also got tired of chasing people to pay him. He is practically forgotten now although Google turns up loads of books with his image credits.

The images were/are fantastic. A serious problem was they had been poorly captioned and have been stored for years in shoeboxes under his bed. When he had all his faculties it didn't matter as he knew who was who but few envelopes are with complete names, places, dates and the old man couldn’t remember so much anymore. To sort them out and try to identify everyone would take thousands of hours on top of the price the dear old gent was asking for his archive and what I could plainly see what he needed to realize for a life’s work.

His son was a housepainter and didn’t know where to start with dealing with the photo industry, especially as the photos were in the UK and he was in the USA. But one of his clients knew me. I was a neophyte myself but I was the only person he knew in photography he could trust.

I approached some image libraries. A few years before someone had offered him £10K for the collection which he had turned down. Now they were no longer interested as they had since bought a similar archive and no one would offer that price again. Some were happy to market the images he supplied and split sales 50/50 but a few quid here and there wasn’t what the old man or his son wanted. The old boy was then in his 80’s and in poor health. One library wanted at least 1000 images properly scanned and captioned to take him on.

There wasn’t any way the old man could realise the value of his archive although it obviously had some value. He wasn’t going to live long enough to benefit from any occasional sales and his children weren’t in position to set that up to benefit themselves.

I thought about going into partnership with the son with me doing the digitizing, marketing, supplying and chasing all the payments and hopefully gently prodding the old man into remembering who was who but with a small and specialist collection that wasn’t going to grow bigger, I figured that unless I pretty much stole it from him, it wasn’t going to be worth my time and the risk. Banks wouldn’t loan me enough unless I put my house up as collateral.

I walked away from that idea and from then on I vowed to caption every image I have ever taken. I’ve just spent several days burning duplicates of my CDs and adding metadata before the brain cells give up.

I have noticed that what I once thought were very boring images I took in the 1970’s have become more interesting. I documented my teenage years fairly thoroughly. Buildings have been demolished, people in unknown pub bands have become famous, the clothes and hairstyles look absurd today. Photos can appreciate in interest and value if unseen for while. There is nothing like new old stock to excite publishers. I hear that some WWII archives that fell into Russian hands that are unseen by the West remain down a salt mine to be released drip by drip to sate the ceaseless demand for such material. So there’s hope. Hang onto something for long enough and it might become valuable in way that can’t be predicted now.

Something I have learned from my business studies: Exiting any business or project needs to be planned for from day one. How are you going to make sure someone, hopefully your designated heirs, will benefit from your work when you’ve gone? In the music industry, your heirs can just sit back and collect the royalties for 70 years and they can leave everything to the PRS but an image archive needs investment and maintenance to remain productive. Who is going to do that when you retire or die has to be thought about now. Heirs have to be prepared to manage a creative legacy. Even if the images are already with a library, heirs have to understand that side of the business as well as you do or they will lose out somewhere.

A growth area in this tits-up economy is retirement planning for the post-war generation, those born 1945-1965. Perhaps there’s a business opportunity for younger entrepreneurs in pooling and managing small personal image collections so their owners can afford to pay someone to wash their bedsores.

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