The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
At SPI, we were sad to learn that Jessie Cohen died earlier this week. Jessie was one of the photographic mainstays at the Smithsonian; she started working at the Smithsonian National Zoo in 1979, photographing animals, their living quarters, and behind-the-scenes events for exhibition, education, and marketing purposes. In addition, Jessie also managed the Zoo’s exhibition office photo department, and oversaw a photo-library of hundreds of thousands of images, including every type of image—from early glass plate negatives to the most recent digital photos.
I’m glad that I got the chance to work with Jessie a while ago, on a video shoot she was instrumental in helping us organize for click! photography changes everything. Fascinated with the fact that pandas were photographed so often that they inevitably became celebrities, I wanted to explore how and why pictures of panda were made and used at the Zoo. And so, we at SPI called Jessie and enlisted her help, photo archive, and expertise. Working with her and Lisa Stevens, Curator of Primates and Pandas, we scripted and taped the video that’s featured on the project website. Watch it and you’ll see Jessie at work, photographing Tai Shan, the now not-so-tiny star zoo attraction, who Jessie had been documenting since his birth.
Jessie met us at the zoo early on a hot July morning in 2008, before regular visitors were allowed in. Working alongside the video crew, I was fascinated as I watched Jessie strategize and then stage-manage what was, in essence, a panda photo op. She knew the site, our two-toned subject’s behavior, and pandas’ appetites well enough to make sure that multiple clumps of bamboo be placed near where she told us to set up the video equipment. Jessie also good-naturedly accepted the fact that we’d need as much patience as luck if we were going to get the kinds of pictures we were hoping for. When you look at the final video filled with the fantastic images Jessie shot that day, as well as some made earlier, you’ll also get a glimpse of Jessie, the accomplished pro, thoroughly engaged and at work.
In an interview done for her alma mater, Beloit College, Jessie once said, “As a kid I was fascinated with the Smithsonian. I had this idea that I wanted to work at the Smithsonian and make dioramas. It was a vision—a fantasy.” And in reality—since photographs, like dioramas, isolate and encapsulate their own little worlds—she accomplished what she’d always dreamed of. She’ll be missed.
Visit here to see photos by Jessie Cohen during her time at the National Zoo.
To be sure, the Smithsonian has a lot of photographs. Millions of them in hundreds of collections spread out across the museums, libraries, and research centers of the institution. And, each day we add more to the pile. We make them and use them everyday for all kinds of reasons and very often re-purpose old photographs for new reasons. But do we use them all; do we need them all? The University College of London is currently posing that very question in an exhibition titled, Disposal?. Disposal? includes objects—among them a collection of glass lantern slides made for illustrating scientific lectures—that wouldn’t normally be on display, and therefore of questionable value to the museum that has to pay for the ongoing upkeep. The New Scientist Magazine also asks its audience the opportunity to vote on five objects earmarked for disposal. Which one goes? Let’s try another version of that game. Gather photography curators around a table and ask them to select the most important photograph. Those who deal with historical and empirical collections shrug off the question as meaningless. They rarely look at one photograph; their work comes measured in groups of thousands, organized, if at all, by subject. Ask a curator of fishes like Jeff Williams, who collects fish by collecting photographs of them, and you might get a photograph of the most important fish, rather than the best technical photograph of a fish. Born digital, his “fish collection” resides on thousands of CD’s or on the hard drive of his computer. On the other hand, curators in art museums who look at individual, masterpiece photographs that function best when matted, framed, and hung on the wall, are more indifferent to the business of the archive. However, facing crucial choices for their collections, institutions may soon have no choice but to ask “which is the most important picture.” If there is only space enough to store, or money enough to conserve the most significant, what criteria will we use to decide which box to open and which photograph to pull out first? The rarest? Oldest? Most damaged? Most beautiful? The one for which we paid the highest price? Or, once catalogued, digitized, and published is it likely to produce revenue? While it is true that many photographs that are valuable for the subjects they represent—whether fishes, bridges, or portraits of famous Americans—can be copied to a digital form, many photographs have survived to become valuable as objects in their own right. So, what criteria best describes the value of photographic purpose and meaning?
Not to worry. No one is talking about throwing any images out yet. As the University of London suggests, disposing of objects by museums is controversial and conjures up images of collections thrown into dumpsters or valuable objects and the knowledge they contain lost to the nation through private sales. With ever-decreasing resources and ever-expanding collections, however, museums are under serious pressure. Why an image, a collection, or an archive of millions is valuable is worth pondering. Does every image need to be digitized and go online? How many images does it take to describe the character and nature of the archive in which they live? As the Smithsonian Archives goes about sorting through collections in preparation for creating larger online access to the Smithsonian’s image collections, I hope that we will come up with more and better answers to that question. And probably even more questions. For more thoughts on the making, use, and disuse of archives see click! photography changes everything! and hear Jonathan Coddington talk about the digital archive of spiders he’s building; Marvin Heiferman discuss how few snapshots ever survive to become an archive; Kenneth Libbrect talk about whether or not it’s important to have a photo of every snowflake, even if everyone is different; and perhaps most of all, Jennifer Sharpe who writes about pictures abandoned in a dumpster.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
Just last week, we uploaded some new photos of early US airmail from the National Postal Museum to the “People and the Post” set on the Flickr Commons. I was immediately drawn in by the portraits of the early airmail pilots—proud-looking, sometimes scrappy, and often outright handsome standing in their flying gear near their planes. They seemed to have a certain energy about them, and as it turns out, they also had some pretty interesting stories.
In the early 20th century, aviation technology was still in its infancy and not yet very safe, and the conditions that airmail pilots flew in were often horrendous. So much so, that flying for the airmail was “considered the next thing to suicide” because of the danger involved.
Pilot James C. Edgerton was the first pilot to navigate through a thunderstorm while carrying mail.
Wesley Smith, “a cigar-smoking pilot known for his stubbornness,” just barely missed perishing in a crash in bad weather in the Orange Mountains of New Jersey, and often spoke about the need to be able to “fly blind” through heavy fog, rain, and snow storms. He famously used a half-filled whiskey bottle taped onto his instrument panel so that he could tell if his wings were level in black-out conditions.
Pilot Jack Knight pulled the first all-nighter for the airmail service. Taking off at two in the morning with bad weather, and aided only by a compass and bonfires lit by ordinary citizens to light his way, Knight successfully completed his run.
Other pilots weren’t so lucky.
Some were punished for not flying in the harsh conditions that killed so many. On November 19, 1918, Shrank and pilot Eddie Gardner were fired when the pair refused to carry mail in a low-visibility fog that had already claimed the life of one pilot that morning.
And Max Miller, an experienced pilot, sadly perished in a plane fire over New Jersey while flying mail.
So did Charles Ames . . .
. . . and William Carroll.
In all, there were 43 fatalities, 25 serious injuries, and 200 crashed planes while flying the mail from May 1918 to August 1927. While today the notion of simply receiving mail in a timely fashion seems almost mundane, once upon a time it was the stuff thriller movies are made of. And in that sense, these photos function as a kind of visual memorial to the lusty pilots who took to the skies, and often didn't live to tell the tale.
Read more about the advent of mail at the Postal Museum's online exhibit "Fad to Fundamental: Airmail in America."
Photography is valued for, among other things, seeing what the human eye cannot. From medical scans to red light cameras to artworks made by image makers offering up new perspectives, photography reminds us that there’s always more to observe than we’re physically able to take in. Last week, an article in the New York Times reported on one more instance of this, a new and rapidly spreading use of photography that, experts believe, will play a significant role in blunting climate change.
It turns out that infrared cameras, used to photograph oil and natural gas wells, pipelines, and storage tanks, can “see” methane leaking out through bad seals, joints and cracks that would be invisible to the naked eye. And once that methane—the major component of natural gas—is released into the air, it traps heat in the atmosphere. While ton for ton, methane poses less of a long-term problem than carbon dioxide emissions, it traps 25 times as much heat, and it accounts for one-third of human contribution to global warming.
So, as oil and gasoline prices fluctuate and threaten to soar, and as new underground sources of methane are sought and tapped around the world, photography is becoming an indispensable tool to yet another industry. “People are very surprised,” said Ben Shepperd, an executive of a consortium of 1,200 oil and gas businesses in West Texas, “when they shoot their equipment with these cameras and they see that there are releases in places they wouldn’t have expected.” Within the next year, infrared images from a Japanese satellite will become available to pinpoint the location of methane leaks and hot spots around the globe.
Sealing up the leaks is a win-win situation; researchers say that it will slow the course of global warming and businessmen, like Reid Smith, an environmental adviser for BP, sees another motivating benefit. “We spend a lot of money to get gas to the surface,” he said. “It makes a huge amount of sense to get all of it through the sales meter.”
Not too long ago, we noticed that a Flickr member digitally touched up a photo of Dutch Crown Princess Juliana holding her infant daughter Beatrix, from the Nationaal Archeif on the Flickr Commons. The retouched photo pictures the former Dutch monarch with "airbrushed" skin of a more even tone. Of course, there is nothing novel about the manipulation of photographs—since the beginning of the medium photographers have used chemicals, light, pens, and airbrushes to alter photographic negatives and prints. What has changed is the ease with which people can manipulate photographs. In the past, the ability to manipulate photographs was mainly in the hands of the wealthy and powerful: Stalin could erase politicians from photographs when they fell out of favor; advertisers could airbrush the legs of their hosiery models; and large film studios could create fantastical sets for the newest sci-fi film. However, the proliferation and availability of programs like Photoshop have democratized the ability to retouch photographs.
The consequences of this leave me feeling ambivalent. On the one hand, I was happy on a recent occasion to be able to help a family friend by retouching a photograph of a loved one's grave that was marred by the presence of liquor bottles. They now live in the US, far away from their homeland and the cemetery, and Photoshopping the photo for them brought a lot of comfort. On the other hand, what do we lose and what do future generations lose by erasing history, and in this case, imperfections, out of a picture? It may be naïve nostalgia on my own part, but as my colleague Effie pointed out, there is something earnest and comforting about that original untouched photo of a Queen with not-so-perfect skin.
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