The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archive: 08/2009 - Page 1
Not only are photographs everywhere, but they’re on everything. And you, too, can contribute to the picture pile-up. If you’ve got any interest in becoming a walking billboard, or before you abet others who do, take a look at a series of articles by Charlene Haze Alcantara at examiner.com—Photography as Graphic Design 101, Parts 1, 2, and 3—that detail how the use of photographic images on t-shirts has become widespread, fashionable and tricky. What’s fascinating—in light of our image-driven culture—is the fact that the articles give readers a crash course in some of the complex issues surrounding the clearing or circumvention of photo reproduction rights.
Alcantara reminds readers that as digital photography and photo-design programs become more accessible, it’s easier for them to grab, manipulate and display images to express themselves and/or make a buck. While that’s not news, what is surprising is the level of detail Alcantara lays out as she describes the ins and outs of image rights and usage. Is it permissible to appropriate recognizable images of politicians or celebrities on your t-shirt? Is it legal to appropriate and use images you find through web searches on the Internet? Is every photograph copyright protected? How far should you go you go, legally, to clear usage? And should you decide not to be hassled with that, how likely is it that rights holders will come after you?
The take-away from these articles is clear. Photographs are cool. The process of making and using them keeps getting simpler. And pictures become valuable in ways that those who took them never could have imagined. Gazillions of pictures are now out there and circulating online, and with the everyday general public’s easy access to publishing, printing, and distribution tools, once-arcane tasks like clearing rights and paying reproduction fees are going mainstream. Some photos will have price tags attached to them and some (like most of those on the Flickr Commons, Flickr Creative Commons, and the Wikimedia Commons) are free for the taking. With individuals and institutions all grappling with budgetary and funding issues, the timing is right to pay more and closer attention to the literal and figurative worth of images as we indulge our endless appetite for them.
The above photo of Henry Morgan Stanley and a young boy named Kalulu has provoked more discussion and debate than any other photograph we have on the Smithsonian Commons, and reading through the comments made me want to know who Kalulu might have been.
Long story short, Stanley was a journalist hired by the New York Herald to track down Dr. David Livingstone—a missionary who hadn’t been heard of since his 1866 departure for Africa to search for the source of the Nile. Stanley was, in fact, successful at finding the doctor in 1871 and greeted him with possibly the most famous words in colonial history: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
As our carte de visite suggests (and as the Smithsonian Institution Libraries noted on Flickr) Kalulu was Stanley’s gun bearer, servant, page, and “sometimes adopted child.” Kalulu was a young slave given to Stanley by an Arab merchant while on his way to find Livingstone. Because Stanley didn’t like the boy’s name (Ndugu M’hali, meaning “my brother’s wealth”), he christened him “Kalulu,” the Swahili term for a young antelope. Kalulu quickly captured Stanley’s attention and trust as Stanley noted: “Kalulu, a boy of seven . . . understands my ways and mode of life exactly. Some weeks ago he ousted . . . the chief butler by sheer diligence and smartness.”
Shortly after discovering Livingstone, Stanley went to England for a lecture circuit and arranged to have studio portraits taken with Kalulu at the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company. The portraits are incredibly stiff: ours shows a shy and uncomfortable-looking Kalulu holding a gun behind a serious Stanley. Another in the series shows Kalulu serving tea to a severe-looking Stanley who has a riding crop conspicuously propped on his knee. As a sign of the times, neither of these two photos even acknowledges Kalulu in the captions. However, a third pictures Kalulu alone, in dungarees, boots, and with his khanga (sarong) wrapped around his shoulders and an incongruous fan in his hands. The first two photos clearly situate Kalulu in a subservient role—behind Stanley and with his eyes cast downward and aside. And yet the third photo (even with its offensive caption that implies Kalulu is somehow owned by Stanley), mentions Kalulu by name and presents a self-possessed boy.
What do these photos tell us? It's hard to say, but there is some information about Kalulu's travels with Stanley. From 1872 to 1873, Kalulu accompanied Stanley around Europe and America and during that time sat for a wax model (along with Stanley), which was installed at Madame Tussaud’s museum; he was presented to Emperor Napoleon; ate at banquets in fancy Western dress; and walked alongside Livingstone’s casket in his London funeral. Kalulu was also enrolled in a school in England by Stanley, where the headmaster reported Kalulu was “clever” and progressing in English. However, after Livingstone’s death in 1874, Stanley decided to pick up where the missionary had left off, and took Kalulu back with him to Zanzibar to take what would end up being a 7,000 mile journey across the continent into the Congo to find the source of the Nile. On this trip in 1877, Kalulu died in a tragic canoe accident on some falls that Stanley later named in his honor.
What we are left with is a complicated history between Stanley and Kalulu. Stanley sets up a clear power dynamic between himself (a self-interested white man not afraid to use the media to aid fame and fortune) and a young African boy in our photo. On the other hand, Stanley’s writings suggest the endearing attitude he had toward Kalulu and many of the men to whom he owed his survival and success in Africa, and he seems to have some understanding of the problem of being a “self-invited” guest in the country. On the one hand, Stanley wrote a children’s book based on Kalulu's life dedicated to the end of slavery in Africa. On the other hand, he helped King Leopold II of Belgium create the Congo Free State, which led to horrific mass killings and abuse of Congolese people. Stanley was ashamed to present his drunken half-brother and cousin to Kalulu in Europe, and yet used some racist language and condescending terminology to refer to his friend and loyal companion. Stanley expressed a complicated mix of paternalism, indifference, and love towards both Africa and Kalulu.
One thing is for sure: we cannot know Kalulu’s story in his own words. And so, while our photo does leave us with many questions, in another sense, it does give a clear picture of how history contains very few clear cut answers.
If you haven’t seen Nora Ephron’s latest film Julie & Julia yet, there are several scenes, which indicate that aside from his work for the U.S. government, Julia Child’s husband Paul was a photographer. After seeing the film, I did a little research and learned that as a young adult, Paul moved to Paris and pursued an artistic profession, working in different media including painting, drawing, and woodcarving. Then, over a twenty-year period, he taught a variety of courses, including photography. Julia wrote in her memoir My Life in France, that Paul “was ambitious for his painting and photography, which he did on evenings or weekends, but even those ambitions were more aesthetic than commercial . . . But his motivation for making paintings and photographs wasn’t fame or riches: his pleasure in the act of creating, ‘the thing itself,’ was reward enough.” Apparently Paul considered photojournalism as a possible profession to pursue, but had no interest in the “ulcers and deadlines” that come with the job. Instead Julia fell into the limelight and Paul faithfully documented their life together from behind the scenes. Some of his black-and-white photographs of the French countryside and Parisian scenes are included in Julia’s memoir.
Paul was Julia’s helpmate and she claims that without him, she never would have had her career. And thanks to her career, we can enjoy Paul’s photographs, despite the fact that he was never seeking artistic fame. The actual kitchen in which Julia cooked and Paul photographed is on display at the National Museum of American History. Online visitors can read the diary about moving the kitchen and its contents from their home in Massachusetts to Washington D.C. here.
Christin Boggs is an Intern at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative
It’s summer, so time for a break from serious thoughts about photographs, their meaning and impact. Instead, let’s relax and have a laugh about the pictures that make us laugh. A recent article in the business section of Time magazine describes how Ben Huh, an online entrepreneur, is raking in money from websites featuring goofy and gross photographs that can be hilarious. Check out This is Photobomb, one of his photo-based money-makers, a collection of snapshots and some videos that have all gone awry, for one reason or another. There are wedding shots interrupted by streakers, scene-stealing animals who pop up unexpectedly in vacation pictures, jokers who subtly undermine group photographs, and people seen posing in their homes, overly focused on the camera facing them, and unaware of some of the embarrassing things they’ve left out on display just behind them.
Huh’s first success was the 2007 web launch of I Can Has Cheezburger?, an awful or entertaining (you decide . . .) collection of kitty snapshots overlaid with misspelled and supposedly cute captions. This past March, Huh’s business Pet Holdings started yet another image-driven website—Picture is Unrelated—whose lofty goal is to feature photographs that present “strange moments of human life captured in photographic form and showcase them . . . as a testament to the absurdity of life.” Well, the images posted are never going to rival “Waiting for Godot.” But what all these web sites remind me of is the need we feel to make photographs that are picture perfect, knowing too well that life itself is inevitably messier than pictures of it.
Several weeks ago a brown box full of photographs arrived at “The Smithsonian.” Now being that “The Smithsonian” is actually made up of many museums and research centers, this brown box was circulated through several offices before I finally got the call to see if it was something that I wanted. Usually the Smithsonian would rather not receive unsolicited donations. Though, sometimes it works out well. After all, James Smithson’s donation was an unsolicited gift! (So unless you are leaving a vast amount of money, I recommend you contact one of the museums first.)
I got a whiff of the box. Hmmm. Slightly moldy smell. I opened the box to find that the photographs were just dumped in and sliding around over each other. There was broken glass in the bottom. This wasn’t going too well. But then, I started pulling out the snapshots. And there is was. A snapshot of a woman at a funeral. Okay, so that’s not a Hope Diamond or pair of Ruby Slippers, but for me it was a gem. You see we humans don’t tend to take snapshot during moments of crisis, unless you are a photojournalist perhaps. But then it usually isn’t your crisis.
As a photo curator interested in snapshots and vernacular photography (the personal use of photography), I’m on the look-out for those photographs that fall outside of the typical snapshot. Since the introduction and wide spread use of inexpensive photography in 1900 by Kodak’s Brownie, snapshots have fallen into fairly typical categories: milestones (birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, etc), religious milestones like confirmations, bar mitvahs and bat mitzvahs, holidays, travel, and general good times. Good times is the key. As we use photography to document our lives, we tend only to capture the happy and positive aspects. Understandably, in the midst of our own crisis, rarely do we pick up a camera and think “I must document this domestic violence, tragic accident, dying person,” or the like. Less dramatic though, we tend not to photograph dirty dishes stacked in the sink, crying children and other such images that may have a negative connotation to future viewers.
So when I saw this slightly faded photograph printed in September 1956 of a woman with a tissue or wadded up handkerchief in her hand, the expression of the woman being comforted and the one comforting, and the funeral canopy, it made me happy. “Ahh,” I sighed. Someone in rural South Carolina captured the challenges we face in life. I can’t know the intention of the photographer, and whether or not, he or she felt this was crisis. Perhaps, someone said, “Bring your camera and photograph the funeral,” and then deviated from the decorum of photographing the coffin and the flowers, but not the grieving. There are other photographs of this funeral. But not of the tears.
So when putting your scrapbooks and albums together, as you construct these histories of your life, think about all its ups and downs, and how you can share a fuller life story.
And if you want to send in an unsolicited donation, make that check out to the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History!
View photographs from the Photographic History Collection.
- 1 of 3
- next ›