The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Maybe I was both hungry and thinking of photography, but a week or so ago, I found myself lingering over an online slideshow of photographs featured in the New York Times’ weekly food section. The colorful and compelling pictures illustrated an article about the growing popularity of homemade bento boxes. More and more Americans, it turns out, are getting creative and making their own versions of the traditional, compartmentalized, and carefully arranged lunches that have long been popular in Japan. The photos featured cute meals and some eye-popping displays of foodstuffs. Some were designed to cajole kids into eating foods they’d normally be wary of. Others were meant to visually lure adults with artfully crafted lunches that serve other purposes as well, like using up leftovers or enforcing portion control. The relentlessly cheery pictures reminded me think about how our desire for food is shaped and manipulated by the various ways food is propped, styled and photographed. That’s why we invited Lauren Shakely—publisher of Clarkson Potter, which specializes in lavishly illustrated and best selling cookbooks—to write a piece for click! photography changes everything and explore the subject. Spend some time sorting through food-related images from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's Archive Center, for example, and you’ll come across a broad range of images that shed light on the ways food is represented on supermarket packaging, and in the media. The story is not always a pretty one. "I always say my job is to get the customer to buy the product just once, to make them feel like eating,” one food stylist was quoted as saying in a 2003 article in The Guardian. “If the food tastes revolting, then that's the manufacturer's problem.” And even if the food tastes good, there are still plenty of reasons for us to understand how the power of photography influences what we eat and, ultimately our health. Some schools and media watchdog groups are creating curriculum themes for kids alerting them to the ways photography whet their appetites and can lead them astray. To see one vivid example of that, watch a less-than-slick but revelatory short video on YouTube that juxtaposes micro-managed studio shots of fast food with grimmer snapshots of the real stuff, just after it’s been purchased.
Bon Appétit? Buyer Beware? I guess that all depends on how hungry or photo-savvy you get.
One of the things people often want to know about photography at the Smithsonian is, “How many photographs do you have?” with the quick follow-up, “Have you counted all of them?” No one knows for certain, but statistical sampling suggests that there are over fifteen million pictures, in the form of prints, negatives, and digital files. These photographs span the broadest range of subject matters and disciplines, from fish photos to portraits, and from digital images of cosmic black holes to masterpieces of American art. But no, no one has counted them all. And it would be a task without end. By the time all the photographs were counted there would likely be another fifteen million waiting to be counted. And with more than a billion photographs made a year by all manner of devices from cameras to cell phones, the prospects don’t seem likely that we will ever catch up.
But isn’t that the nature of photography? From the outset, photography has traded in volume. Picture upon picture, photographs formed an inventory of our life. “As the bee gathers her sweets for winter,” promised Samuel Morse, inventor and one of the first practitioners of photography in the United States, “we will have rich materials … an exhaustless store for the imagination to feed on.” But in 1840, Morse didn’t imagine that the wonderful promise of more and more images—the “exhaustless store”—would pale in the face of a massive and chaotic accumulation. Now housed in museums and archives, on computer hard drives and servers, as well as the more domestic storage of shoe boxes, albums, and memory sticks, photographs threaten to overwhelm us. Like Walt Disney’s cartoon character, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who tried to substitute magic for enterprise and was almost drowned by his task, our attempt to keep order and provide physical and intellectual access—from copy prints to digitization—only seem to result in the production of more and more images. At the turn of the last century Thomas Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first staff photographer and custodian of photography, tried to bring order to the thousands of photographs that had already been produced by the work of the institution. His archive was made up of glass plate negatives and to consult any of them presumably required not only patience but a good pair of gloves. So, Smillie and his staff set about copying them all, and a collection of record prints was made. These cyanotype prints, easy and inexpensive to make, each with a number that corresponded to its negative, created the Smithsonian’s first image database, and yes, more photographs for us to count today. In the next year the Smithsonian will undertake a more complete survey of its photographic collections than it ever has before. Far from “counting them all,” however, the survey will give the institution a much better sense of the size and shape of its hundreds of specialized collections and archives. This will in turn give those who care for these photographs a sense of how to prioritize the needs of their individual collections. And ultimately this will better guide the institution in creating ways, using new technologies, to give better access to these vast collections. Just like every other museum and archive in the world, the Smithsonian makes, collects, stores, preserves, catalogues, and digitizes photographs every day. Increasingly, as we are able to integrate photographs with other informational systems, visual culture will become less a catch-all phrase for masses of images than a real working term for the future relevance of photography and its prodigious production of images. We’ll keep you posted. And how do you organize your own archive? Records and photographs capturing Thomas Smillie's tenure at the Smithsonian are maintained by the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
In December of 1987, professors William DuBois and Michael Peres of the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology organized a small event to teach students about electronic flash photography. After dark, a 4x5 camera was set up in front of the city of Rochester’s Highland Hospital. The shutter was held open for a 30-seconds exposure while 37 students, faculty and friends set off camera flash units to illuminate the building. Since that cold night in 1987, the picture project, known as the “Big Shot” has become a yearly RIT tradition. In its early years the organizers planned locally, capturing Rochester landmarks. Eventually the project travelled to Texas for the Alamo and eventually made international ventures to Stockholm, Sweden and Dubrovnik, Croatia. Participation has ranged from 50 to 1,200 people. This September, RIT is coming to Washington D.C. to capture its 25th Big Shot, at the National Museum of the American Indian. “What drew us to the structure was its unique architecture, the color and the texture of the stone, and the museum’s location on the National Mall,” said Dawn Tower-DuBois, professor at RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf and a Big Shot coordinator. The event is a perfect way for the museum to celebrate its fifth anniversary on the mall. Come join the fun! Date: Saturday, September 26 Time: Arrive at 7:45 PM Place: Meet outside the National Museum of the American Indian Bring: Wear dark clothing and bring a flashlight or camera flash unit. The use of laser beams is prohibited. Preregistration is not required. Participants will receive a complimentary 8 x10 color print of the photograph courtesy of Nikon Inc, USA.
Christin Boggs, Intern, Smithsonian Photography Initiative
Given the trouble newspapers are having staying afloat—which includes paying for reporters, news gathering, and making (or leasing) photographs to illustrate stories—cutting costs is a key to survival. A startling article by Tim Badgett in the September 21st issue of Time magazine described how some papers are simultaneously trimming picture budgets and bulking up online readership by featuring digital, continually updated galleries of mug shots.
The home page of the St. Petersburg Times, for example, features mug shots of locals who’ve been arrested by the police in four nearby counties served by the paper. Straightforward, artless, and yet completely fascinating, the routine portraits depict subjects posed in front of neutral blue backgrounds. Although they’re all innocent until proven guilty, it’s hard not to scan faces for indicators of character and/or criminality. And for website visitors who want more specifics, a click or two links them directly to police records that provide names, addresses, vital statistics, and a sense of what these unintentional celebrities have been charged with.
Photography, since its invention, has been an essential tool for those charged with maintaining law and order. In the second half of the 19th century, Allan Pinkerton created a detective agency that published wanted posters and, later, books of mug shots that were distributed to clients, such as the American Bankers Association.
In the 1870s, Communards who manned barricades in the streets of Paris posed for the photographs that would ultimately be used to prosecute them. In the 20th century, tabloid newspapers routinely generated excitement by reproducing portraits of alleged and seasoned criminals, in order to both inform and titillate the reading public.
The phenomenon continues to this day. A quick online search yields a rogues gallery of historic and contemporary mug shots:
Mug shots, now a media staple; pique curiosity, build audiences, and cost nothing. That’s why, some have argued, news outlets’ websites feature these public domain pictures (under the Freedom of Information Act) so prominently and often. Take a look at one Florida TV channel’s website, to see hundreds of recent photographs, accompanied by an equally impressive array of graphs and statistics. “It’s a huge traffic driver for us,” Roger Simmons, digital news manager for the Orlando Sentinel, where mug shots generate 2.5 million page views per month, is quoted as saying in the Time article.
The more people who come to online sites to see both what’s going on and going wrong in the neighborhood, the higher the fees media sites can charge to advertisers can soar. Given that fact, the old adage—looking good is the best revenge—is starting to sound out-dated. Now, it’s the people charged with being bad and who’ve been photographed indifferently who are helping others laugh all the way to the bank.
It’s that season again, and I can’t help but reminisce about cool new lunchboxes, crisp notebooks, and the smell of leaves, as everyone starts a new school year. A quick browse through our photographs is like a tour through all aspects of school life. For some, it’s the excitement of starting school for the first time.
For others, it’s a chance to pursue adult career dreams (plus, art school was one of the few places women were welcome to get advanced degrees in the 19th century).
School has always been a place where truth and knowledge are defined and delimited. The Scopes Trial reminds us of ongoing debates about what can or cannot be taught in the classroom.
But school is also about expanding our horizons (talk about a hands-on field trip!)
and developing new skills (how about learning a new sport, like cricket?)
But some aspects of school aren’t as great—like getting school portraits taken.
And for me, school also brings up unfortunate food memories (like Sloppy Joes in the cafeteria, or technicolored Jello salads at PTA meetings!?!)
But fortunately, you can always rely on a few universally-celebrated aspects of school—like recess!
Does the beginning of fall bring up any poignant school memories for you?
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