Burned to Nothing: When Photographers Destroy Their Own Negatives

5 minute read

For decades, the act of setting fire to photographic negatives — frequently an entire archive’s worth of negatives — has been one of the signature ways that artists have signaled an incandescent end to one part of their careers. The aesthetic and intellectual sparks behind this irretrievable gesture, meanwhile, are as varied as the sensibilities and the work produced by artists through the years.

Japanese photographer Takuma Nakahira, for instance, whose first U.S. solo exhibition was recently on view at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, burned his entire early archive in 1973. A pioneer, with Daido Moriyama, of the “are, bure, boke,” or “rough, blurred, out of focus” style, Nakahira had grown increasingly concerned that his work might descend into cliché. Weary that he was going too far in “assert[ing] control over the world in the ‘poetic’ treatment of reality” — as Franz Prichard, a Postdoctoral Fellow of Japanese Studies at Harvard, phrased it in an email to TIME — Nakahira piled up his negatives and destroyed the source for all his imagery.

Drawn to what Prichard deems the “transformative charge of fire,” Nakahira was determined to break from convention, destroying ties to the authority of his own past in an effort to reinvent himself completely as an artist.

Commonly viewed as an optimal medium for preserving images, film is in fact one of the most fragile. The first commercially available film was largely based on nitrate — in effect, a low-order explosive. Extremely combustible, nitrate film exposed to enough heat will literally burst into flames. By the early 1950s, however, nitrate was replaced by acetate-based, or “safety film,” which melts and bubbles more often than it burns. Safety film will, under the right conditions, catch fire and disintegrate; but it’s not quite the same as the incendiary effects of the classic nitrate fireworks.

Brian Duffy, an English photographer best known for his portraits of ’60s and ’70s cultural figures (Bowie, William Burroughs, Michael Caine, etc.), decided in 1979 that he would never make another picture — and he never did. Increasingly disenchanted with the commercial turn of his career, “I went into a burning mode,” he once told the BBC.

“I felt everything I had to do and say in photography had been done,” he said. Pointing to the accomplishments of portrait artists like Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, he said “they f—ed photography for [the rest of] us. … They got there.”

Not all photographers, however, have burned their negatives due to their tortured connection to the past. Some, like Brett Weston, are instead passionate about exerting absolute control over their legacy — in other words, over what gets left behind.

Weston, on his 80th birthday and two years before his death in 1993, surrounded by friends and family, tossed every one of his negatives into a brightly burning fireplace in his home in California. He had been promising to destroy all his film for more than two decades in a bid to pass on ultimate control over the editioning of his work to his estate.

“Nobody can print [my work] the way I do,” he told the Associated Press. “The prints are posterity, not the negatives. … I don’t want students and teachers to print my work.”

Similarly, though with a bit more pageantry, Edward Steichen “wanted to leave behind only the negatives that he found of aesthetic value or of historical importance,” writes his wife Joanna Steichen in her introduction to Steichen in Color. In the 1960s, Steichen began what she describes as a “frantic process” of destruction.

“He tried burning them and burying them in the swamp. Finally, by the time I arrived … they were being tied up in bundles, taken out to the middle of the pond and dumped; the water washed away the emulsion.”

Steichen and Weston took to burning their archives in the twilight of their lives; ocasionally, artists begin this process in their prime.

In 2009, Jean-Baptiste Avril was commissioned by a gallery in Israel to work on a project on the architecture of Tel Aviv. He shot about 17 rolls of film; the gallery hosted a successful exhibition of 12 large-format gelatin prints and produced an accompanying catalog. Avril was subsequently approached by cultural institutions and editorial outlets throughout Israel and Europe, all requesting to exhibit or republish the work — but offering no compensation, other than the publicity.

“So my work has to be for free!” he wrote in an online forum. “All right! As it has no value I don’t see the need for it to physically exist much longer.”

"Autodafé," a video by M. Meiffren documenting the photographic self-immolation of Jean-Baptiste Avril, seen in this still destroying his own negatives.Courtesy of Jean-Baptiste Avril—YouTube

He tossed roll after roll of film into his fireplace, documenting and publicizing the event. But, as Paul Melcher, a senior editor at Le Journal de la Photographie, points out, Avril “conceded he scanned them all in advance, making the gesture rather hollow.”

In the digital age, as the act of burning negatives has perhaps lost something of its significance, artists — like John Baldessari years ago with his “Cremation Project” — have made performance art itself of the act. Contemporary photographers like Eric Dallimore and Brent Losing, meanwhile, have adopted it as a visual aesthetic, incorporating elements of chance into their work, producing one-of-a-kind, continuously deteriorating sculptural objects. These photographers burn and melt negatives incompletely to make distorted images while capturing the fleeting visuals of the act itself.

Peter Hoffman, a Chicago-based photographer, also brought this method to his Fox River Derivatives series on oil spills. He shot pictures along the Fox River near Chicago, soaked them in petroleum fuel and set them alight. Partially burned, the resulting images interweave form, process and content, all at once.

All of which raises the question: How will photographers working solely in the digital realm — in which, as we all know, nothing is ever truly lost — assert control over their own legacies? How after all, do you burn ones and zeroes?

Eugene Reznik is a Brooklyn-based photographer and writer. Follow him on Twitter @eugene_reznik.

"Untitled #3," 2010; from the series Fox River Derivatives. For his series on the themes of "water and oil," inspired in part by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the artist coated these negatives of the Fox River near Chicago in gasoline and set them aflame.Peter Hoffman
"Untitled #9," 2010; from the series Fox River Derivatives. "I wanted to lose control," Hoffman says. He used water to extinguish the fire before the negatives had entirely disappeared.Peter Hoffman
"Untitled #2," 2007; from the series Burnt Negatives. This is a series of images of the decaying communist monuments in Memento Park in Budapest, burned by the artist with cigars, matches and other small embers six years after they were taken in 2001. The bubbling adds a layer of sculptural three-dementionality, offering the artist the opportunity to refocus on a different plane in the darkroom.Eric R. Dallimore
"Untitled #4," 2007; from the series Burnt Negatives. "These deteriorating, brittle negatives will create particular nuances over each edition," Dallimore says.Eric R. Dallimore
"Untitled," 2002.Notable for the chance apparition on the staircase, this image was taken in lobby of the Meade Hotel in the ghost town of Bannack, Montana by a former student of Christina Z. Anderson, who has been teaching the experimental process since 2001.Brent Losing
US Capitol
A distorted image of the dome of the Capitol of the United States of America in Washington, c. 1940. Weegee employed a number of different processes for developing his series of "distortions," what he also called his "creative photography," or "art," according to ICP. In addition to using curved or textured lenses and kaleidoscopes, he would at times melt and manipulate his negatives with boiling water or an open flame. Weegee (Arthur Fellig)—International Center of Photography/Getty Images
"Untitled," 1971; from the series Circulation: Date, Place, Events. This the earliest surviving series by the artist who burned his entire archive of negatives in 1973. It was only discovered by a publisher preparing for his retrospective nearly 40 years later. According to the gallery, the burn mark on the top left image is coincidental, not related to the 1973 burning, but a result of subsequent "studio practices."Takuma Nakahira—Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York
The contact sheet from the cover shoot of David Bowie's 1973 album Aladdin Sane. In 1979, the photographer put all of his negatives, including those from this series, in a dustbin and set them on fire in the garden of his studio. Unfortunately, “negatives don’t burn easily,” Duffy said, “they make a hell of a lot of smoke.” A city official caught sight of this and convinced him to put the fire out. Much of the archive remained intact. Brian Duffy—Courtesy of Duffy Archive/David Bowie Archive
"Dunes and Mountains," White Sands, New Mexico, 1945. On his 80th birthday, the photographer burned all his life's negatives in front of friends and family at his home in California. "The prints are posterity, not the negatives," he said. "I don't want students and teachers to print my work."Brett Weston—Courtesy of the Brett Weston Archive
Moonlight: The Pond, 1903
"Moonlight: The Pond," 1903. In the 1960s, the photographer began destroying all the negatives to work he deemed "rejects." The seminal image above was not likely one of them. “He tried burning them and burying them in the swamp. Finally, by the time I arrived,” his wife Joanna Steichen writes, “they were being tied up in bundles, taken out to the middle of the pond and dumped; the water washed away the emulsion.”Edward Steichen—Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film
"The Electric Transformer," Jaffa Road, Tel Aviv, 2009. On January 11, 2010, the photographer publicly burned all the negatives to this series on the architecture of Tel Aviv in protest to the current day working conditions of professional photographers who often go uncompensated for their work.Jean-Baptiste Avril

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