A Living Legacy

I could have done lots more, put in much more work and developed more pictures, but I had also a desire to say what I felt about life.

—Consuelo Kanaga

I’ve had several conversations recently about the topic of legacy. In hindsight, I realized, this has been one of the most consistent topics of conversation I’ve had with fellow photographers over the years, especially with those who, after some years of practice, found themselves considering the magnitude of investment of time, money, and effort they put into in their work, and the important part that photography came to play in their own lives.

Perhaps reflexively, people seem to think that such great investment will “go to waste” if not preserved and handed off to future generations. I think this is the wrong way to think about it. The point of such investment is to enrich and to elevate one’s own living experience. If it does so for others, all the better, but to worry about it is pointless and may even diminish the value that art may bring into its maker’s life. A long-lasting legacy is an accident of history, a matter of chance, an exception, an unnecessarily heavy self-imposed burden and a distraction from authentic living.

A friend recently loaned me a copy of Eudora Welty’s book of photographs, One Time, One Place (yes, she was a great photographer, too). Welty photographed in Mississippi, where she was born and had lived a long and productive life. In the book, she documented the lives of poor, mostly black people during the Great Depression. In the conversation that ensued, I suggested to my friend to look up the work of another great photographer who also produced some work in this genre: Consuelo Kanaga—a pioneering photojournalist who worked for the San Francisco Chronicle in the early 1900s.

Welty’s photographs reminded me of Kanaga’s work since, beyond the latter’s many personal and photographic accomplishments, she was also known for her beautiful portraits of black people, some of which were exhibited alongside the works of Group f/64 members like Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. In Kanaga’s words:

[Alfred] Stieglitz always said, “What have you got to say?” I think in a few small cases I’ve said a few things, expressed how I felt, trying to show the horror of poverty or the beauty of black people. I think that in photography what you’ve done is what you’ve had to say. In everything this has been the message of my life.

Alas, like most people, my friend had not heard of Kanaga, who, despite her great courage and formidable achievements—as a woman in a male-dominated profession, as a gutsy reporter, and as a photographic artist working with then-controversial subject matter for purely humanitarian reasons—was nonetheless described posthumously as “one of America’s most transcendent yet, surprisingly, least-known photographers.”

Is it surprising, though? In truth, with few exceptions, most photographers who had achieved notoriety (in Kanaga’s time or earlier) remain largely unknown to most today, if only because their (sometimes immensely important) legacies have been obscured by the disproportionately long shadow of Ansel Adams’s fame.

In thinking objectively about those who have left enduring legacies and those who may ostensibly deserve to be better known today, yet were denied such legacies, questions abound. Does it matter if people will remember your name if they don’t remember anything else about you—your stories, your achievements, your thoughts? Conversely, does it matter if people will benefit from your legacy but not know anything else about the person you were, perhaps not even your name? Does it matter if people remember your name and associate it with a worthy legacy if in truth that legacy is more mythology than truth? I believe it is fair to say that most legacies fall into one of these scenarios. I will offer some examples to illustrate the point.

In 1905, which came to be known as his “miracle year,” while working as a clerk at the Swiss Patent Office, Albert Einstein revolutionized our understanding of physics—of reality—four times in a single year. He gave us relativity, discovered the quantum nature of light, offered proof for the existence of atoms, and showed that mass and energy are interchangeable. Equally astounding is this: he accomplished all that without ever setting foot in a lab, without conducting a single experiment (other than thought experiments), without computers, without telescopes, without microscopes or any other scientific devices. Einstein also wrote prolifically about humanism, politics, racism, war, aesthetics, religious belief, and other topics, all while pursuing still greater discoveries in physics. Today, most people remember Einstein’s name, but very few other than trained physicists know or can explain why. Have you heard of Émilie du Châtelet? How about Ludwig Boltzman? Emmy Noether? Paul Dirac? Modern physics, including some of the work of Einstein, would not have been possible without their immense insights and contributions.

If you consider yourself a fine-art photographer, have you heard of Alfred Stieglitz? If so, can you name just a handful of his greatest works or explain his approach to photography, or his importance in bringing modern art to American audiences? By my experience, most can’t. Yet, if you ask subject matter experts to rank historical photographers in order of the importance of their contribution to the establishment of photography as an art form, Stieglitz would likely be (at the least) a serious contender for the top spot, alongside the likes of Roger Fenton, Henry Peach Robinson, and Edward Steichen, who unfortunately are even less well known today.

Conversely, most photographers likely know (and believe) Ansel Adams’s story of coming upon the scene of his famous 1941 photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” identifying immediately an “inevitable photograph” and scurrying to calculate the exposure based on the luminance of the moon while racing against the fading light, after he couldn’t find his Weston Master light meter. Adams published this story in his 1983 book, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (which features the photograph in its cover). Perhaps he forgot that in 1943 (just two years after making the image) he was asked by Steichen to write a blurb about “Moonrise” for the magazine US Camera. In that article, Adams described the image as “a rather normal photograph of a typical New Mexican landscape,” and explained in detail how he calculated the exposure based on readings (which he noted down and cited in the article) from… his Weston Master light meter. Which is Adams’s more important legacy? The real one or the mythical one?

The fact is that those who leave a legacy, in almost every case, are those who were lucky enough to be born in certain fortuitous times and places, having certain personality traits and natural abilities, having the means and opportunities to pursue their interests freely, and always helped by others. Which is to say that a legacy is largely—in many cases, entirely—a matter of random chance. Many who have the talent and capacity to do remarkable things never get the chance to put their abilities to use. Likewise, many who actually have done remarkable things but did not have the temperament, interest, or social influence to become famous for their work, fade into obscurity, their legacies sometimes persisting as their names fade from memory.

Let us also not gloss over the undesirable aspects of leaving eminent legacies. Often, those who leave legacies are not necessarily those who have achieved the greatest accomplishments or who made the most important contributions, but those who were talented self-promoters, or who have had other people with such talents promote them, sometimes at the cost of obscuring or denying others their (sometimes worthier) due legacies.

To be consciously concerned about one’s legacy may have profoundly negative consequences for individual creators, too. Beyond being distracted from doing one’s work for one’s own sake and remaining open to new discoveries, if one decides what their legacy will be, and invest work in securing its longevity (especially if one does so early in their career, before having gained sufficient knowledge, experience, and understanding), this person may become so invested that they may later find it difficult to change their minds even if they become convinced of their own errors. They may even deny themselves the privilege of daring to reexamine and reconsider their views for fear of discovering and having to admit their errors. Upton Sinclair summed it up when he said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Of course, the drive to sustain one’s fame may have the same blinding effect as the drive to sustain one’s income.

Making matters worse, the legacies of influential people may also intimidate others from questioning certain subjects associated with a famous person’s legacy, and thus stifle innovation and progress.

In a 2004 article titled, “Legacy—Musings From a Night on a Mountain,” (reproduced in my 2009 self-published book, Exposures), I wrote:

What would this world be without me, without humanity, without this planet? Will it even begin to matter in the grand scheme of things?

In the article, I described a temptation I felt, while on a solo backpacking trip in the mountains of Northern Utah, to continue wandering into the wilds, to attempt to survive on my own skills and wits, to find out if I am cut out for it even if it cost me my life. At the time, I felt I should defer such decisions until “maybe someday . . . after I establish a legacy.” Realizing I was not able to articulate why leaving a legacy was important, I finally concluded it was best not to think about it, at least not right there and then with so much else to occupy my mind with. Still, the thought never left me: Why is a legacy important? Who is it important to? Should I care?

Nearly two decades later and after having had many thoughts and conversations about the subject of legacy since, I finally concluded that whatever my legacy ends up being (if anything) is not for me, but for history—for other people—to decide. My concern must be to live my own life as authentically as I can. If my history or any mythology about me or my work ultimately is deemed useful to others, that will be my legacy. If they are not, it only amounts to my inevitable disappearance into oblivion happening a little sooner than it would otherwise. So what?

In a hundred years who’s going to care? How about a million years? A billion? The point is that in the fathomless expanses of time and space, or even just within the minuscule span that will someday constitute all human history, any number you can name is, objectively, infinitesimally small and meaningless. How many great artists of the Mongol Empire can you name? How many great Native American potters? How many great Celtic poets? How many great ancient Egyptian musicians?

On further thought, I came up with a more nuanced idea of what sort of legacy actually is worth my caring about: my own living legacy—the legacy of memories, knowledge, and understanding I may leave to my older self, to those who share my life, to those who know me or care about me—while I and they are alive. What happens beyond that, is not my concern. At least it is not something I see any rational reason to be concerned about or to burden myself with.

In my pursuit of authentic living, I believe I have learned some important life lessons and discovered (sometimes by chance) certain experiences and philosophies that have enriched my life tremendously. Some of what I had learned, I have made public in books and in other writings. Also, despite my introverted and reclusive nature, I have been a teacher in one capacity or another for over three decades now, always seeking to impart to my students not just information but also thinking skills and considerations of aspects beyond the formal topics of my classes. This may seem in contradiction with my lack of concern for a legacy, but in fact it is not.

Some of it, I admit (proudly) I have done for practical reasons: to sustain myself and my loved ones, and my way of life. I am not wealthy enough to be able to go about life without earning an income—the word earning being an important distinction, not just a figure of speech. In other careers I’ve had, despite being paid considerably more than I ever made in any creative or educational endeavor, it rarely felt like I was using my skills and opportunities to the greater benefit I could apply them toward. In teaching and writing I gave up some income—as some would put it, I knowingly and without regret “left money on the table”—in trade for a sense of earning my pay by doing useful service. Beyond any sense of contributing to some “greater good,” my guiding instinct in doing such work has often been to create things that would have been valuable to my younger self along my own journey if I had found them in the works and teachings of others.

For that, I have sometimes been called “preachy,” which I always found odd. It seems that in the minds of some, the term is considered a pejorative. If, throughout human history, those who felt they had important things to share with the world did not stand up to preach (sometimes against their own interests, disposition, or even safety), we would still be hunter-gatherers.

(Then again, in light of events unfolding in the world today, I concede that one may plausibly argue that, all things considered, this may not have been entirely a bad thing.)

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10 thoughts on “A Living Legacy

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  1. Haha, funny. Just before I read the last line in parentheses I had the same exact thought. Glad you threw that in there. 😉 I’ve also had similar fascinations about one day retreating into the wilderness to live entirely on my own, disconnected from civilization. Not only would I most like not survive very long, unfortunately there is almost nowhere you can do that anymore. Besides maybe in the Amazon, which doesn’t allure me as much as other kinds of landscapes. It would also be hard to find a band of people that would be willing to do it with me, since our species was never built to get by as individuals.

    1. Thanks, Eric! There are actually plenty of places you can do that in the American West. They just require some effort and skill to get into.

      1. I guess if you “violate” the law that you can only stay for 14 days in most wilderness areas in the US, or are capable of constantly moving around instead of setting up a reliable basecamp in a place that has all the resources you need. It’s also illegal to hunt without permits which you couldn’t obtain off grid in the wild. Foraging is also restricted. I’ve been to many places where you can find absolute solitude, but residing in them permanently is a different beast.

  2. Another wonderful article with new references to look up and study!
    As for legacy, as you have written elsewhere that later, everything is rock. The best kind is to live and sing your own song, without a care for legacy. And if it happens, it happens. What enantiodromia!

  3. Lots of good points here, Guy, as usual. For me this is the key takeaway: “…what sort of legacy actually is worth my caring about: my own living legacy—the legacy of memories, knowledge, and understanding I may leave to my older self, to those who share my life, to those who know me or care about me—while I and they are alive.” That is legacy!

  4. A life-long photographer who just celebrated my 80th birthday, I’ve been contemplating the significance of “legacy” recently. This essay, as with Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens” reminds me that individual accomplishment is soon forgotten in the vastness of time. Nonetheless, our individual decisions and actions may have consequences for (at least) generations.

  5. I think I have to agree with the notion of the myth. I would wager that most intentional legacies that would be considered have initial value get squandered or quickly forgotten. They are not legacies at all in the end. It is usually those that are left unintentionally that benefit multiple generations, or even last millennia. So it is not for us to choose our own legacies; it is for those who follow, and if we do have one, it is probably not what we would have chosen or expected. For most of us, it’s nothing more than residue of our fleeting existence.

    I also believe it’s fair to say that for many who are concerned with what they leave behind, it is more of a quest for immortality or ascribing some meaning to their lives other than the literal produce of their activities and experiences, whether mundane or grand, contrived or spontaneous. A desire for their lives to be greater in the end, than the sum total of all the days of their lives. It’s a bit of a nihilistic, perhaps, or cynical point of view. And it seems quite sad for those who reach the latter chapters and wish it could have been something more.

    I’d rather leave no trace and try to not leave the place worse than how I found it.

  6. Guy, while I absolutely love your writing and your images, your legacy will be that of knowledge, humanity, and wisdom and sharing that with whoever has the opportunity to notice. Quite a legacy in my mind!

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