Memories And Mortality: What Does Legacy Really Mean?

It’s a curious thing to walk into an antique store and see an old family portrait for sale. I wonder what resale value those pictures have. Naturally, there’s the history of photography to be considered. Yet these portraits would have really only mattered to those connected to the subject in some way–a family member typically. 

The photo featured above (which I scanned from the negative) is meaningful to me because that is my grandmother, Jean Martin (later Rink). She died in December 2013 at the age of 107! This photo was taken clearly when she was in her prime. If my information is accurate, the photo was taken by my grandfather (her husband), Ralph Martin.

Personally, I like the photo beyond its family connection. As an environmental portrait, it has a compelling composition and her pose connotes confidence. Her rolled up sleeves likewise tell a story that she worked hard. I love the photo for its own sake, but naturally I frame it within the memories I had of her from when she was alive. Her legacy remains in me and in my family.

Now this is another photo I scanned, but I have no idea who these children were. My mother could not identify them. They were with our family photos, but whatever was known about them appears to be lost. 

Now this portrait is another from my mother’s side. I forget his name. My mother will no doubt remind me. But unless I take up an active interest in ancestry, it is a good bet that in a generation whatever was known about him will be forgotten. This is just how it is: memories we pass down via stories and photos are difficult to preserve and perpetuate. Young people seldom have a deep interest in the past, even about their own heritage. 

It’s important to say that is not an indictment. When I was young, I was equally uninterested. As I journey through my 50s, the idea of legacy and reflecting on the path I have taken frequently comes to mind. I hit me that since we do not have children, there is little chance of a legacy for me. Whatever I do in life, it is a virtual certainty no one will make mention of it in 50 or 100 years. 

Does a lack of a legacy make our lives meaningless?

The notion of a legacy that is decoupled from leaving behind “stuff” for the next generation (i.e. a willed estate etc.) is itself a recent innovation. The history of the word “legacy” originated in the common practice of passing down property to one’s children. Today, we tend to think of legacy as an enduring memory for one’s accomplishments. It is arguably why as a culture we are obsessed with celebrities, because widely popular people have a better chance of being remembered well past their lifetimes.

Many have written about this redefined concept of personal legacy. Just a quick search took to to a site with tips on how to leave a legacy. Of course, there have always been a handful of individuals who made the history books. Typically, we think of powerful people that changed the course of history. Yet the vast supermajority of people throughout time have passed into obscurity. What does that really mean?

As a Christian, I believe God knows every single person that ever lived. Moreover, the Bible posits eternity in the presence of Christ and those who, by faith, are in covenant with God. A biblical theology ultimately makes Christ the true legacy for humanity. I take great comfort to know God remembers me—and that beyond this life I have a great hope in Jesus.

 I really will never know if any memory of me will survive for long. Beyond my immediate family and closest friends, it is unlikely something I said or did will linger. My photography and other life activities will almost certainly not be remembered—in fact, our streaming culture barely stops to take notice now. We all keep scrolling. 

I will not be remembered 

No one will publish a book in 100 years showcasing my photos or writings. In fact, as I get older my “fame” is already fading (LOL). Does that really matter? Not at all. Legacy as an enduring memory should not my motivation for doing photography or anything else. But perhaps in the relationships and in the cumulative impact of my influence someone’s life might be enhanced. Maybe someone close to me will go on to greater things because of a tiny impact I might have had on them. I will never know.  I’m okay with that.

Leisurely Photography

A working photographer I am not. This refers to my previous blog post about photography as a hobby versus a business. A working photographer’s life is, frankly, brutal. It requires dogged determination, obsession, singular focus, and enormous sacrifice–and it is likely to cost more than it rewards (in a financial sense). Honestly, I have realized more and more that my skillset and personality do not lend to being a full-time working photographer. 

Yet I do not see myself as a leisurely photographer, either. To be at leisure to my thinking means aimlessness. Laziness. Stagnant. 

I like to think I am on a journey as a photographer. Destination: well, that’s the rub. If my goal is not to become a full-time working photographer, what is it? I do not have a clear answer to that question. A few things come to mind, but I think it will take more writing and journaling to hone my thinking. The interesting thing is that just taking photos will not get me answers. I have been recently reminded that paper and ink journaling is a photographer’s friend. Photographer, author, and educator Marc Silber of Advancing Your Photography has been interviewing a number of working photographers. This idea of journaling as an integral component of a developing photographer has struck a chord. My only fear: my handwriting is atrocious LOL.

Be that as it may, it might be time to start journaling. Not just blogging, but to take a notebook with me in the field. Question: what do I write down? It should not be about camera settings or technical stuff. I think I need to explore the vocabulary of emotion. What does a scene I just captured evoke in me? What emotional impact might the viewer of my photograph experience? 

Photography Hobby vs. Business

It started with some flowers. Actually, going back further to high school it was landscapes of Michigan and urban scenes of Chicago (more about that later). Once I started on a gear upgrade path and more shooting, I realized I really loved photography.

Then, about 4 years ago I got asked to shoot a church service — Palm Sunday and Easter. I got a check. Money. I thought, “I’m a professional…” Well, I knew better…but it was a nice thought.

Later, I had the opportunity to do some paid real estate photography. And a couple weddings. It had not gained real momentum, but it made me think, “perhaps I am becoming a professional photographer.” I invested in better gear (again). I kept shooting. Imagining. Researching. Had this hobby of mine turned into something more?

Just one problem: my small business background was warning me to be mindful of the lessons I have learned in someone else’s failed start-up. 

I recall Michael Gerber’s excellent book, The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. There are many summary pages online for this book because of its tremendous impact (e.g. see In short, the dream of being one’s own boss doing something they’re seemingly good at very often ends in ashes. This is due to some very predictable (yet fixable) behavior patterns. Gerber offers some helpful remedies, though I wonder how many would-be entrepreneurs would execute effectively.

Specifically for photography, my observation is that a lot of people who love photography get the idea they should do it professionally and full-time. Sometimes people close to them say they should. Or they just see other photographers and think, “hey, I can do that!”

The problem is that doing photography professionally means becoming a business owner (unless you happen to be one of the lucky few to get hired by a firm–but that is increasingly rare in the 21st century). Now the photographer who loves to take pictures has to learn marketing. Buy insurance. Pay taxes. Do all the tasks that any small business must do. Moreover, photography start-ups rarely are profitable in the first year or two. There’s intense competition. There’s huge pricing pressure. And now we have a lockdown that has essentially stopped all events and photoshoots across the board. It frames a rather gloomy picture, doesn’t it?

Yet the hobby photographer (who takes the craft seriously) can just continue to enjoy photography. I think defining the word “hobby” is where the issue lies. The word “mediocre” likely comes to mind. Amateur in the sense of inept. I rather prefer this definition: “An activity or interest pursued outside one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure” (“hobby.” American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company 19 May. 2020). 

What’s key for me is that word “pursued”. I go after an image I envision. I practice with passion. I strive for professional results, just not the burden of running a business. It’s a balancing act. As paid photography works comes my way, I feel the freedom to evaluate it on my own artistic and personal expression–not the pursuit of making money at it.

So with increasing photography expertise (though acknowledging I still have a lot to learn), I keep walking the tightrope between hobbyist and professional. Business or pleasure. 

This very website is my way of slowly building a photography business platform without jumping in the deep waters and risks of pursuing a small business full-time. And ultimately this is about patience as I pursue.

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