The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Two weeks ago the Smithsonian held its first “Photography Summit.” Smithsonian administrators, curators, archivists, collection managers, conservators, and photographers (and probably a few other categories of staff were represented as well) gathered to hear presentations by conservators from Harvard University, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library who have completed, or in the case of NYPL just embarked upon, surveys of their image collections. The idea is to start planning for a Smithsonian-wide survey of our photography collections. This does not mean that we will open every drawer or count every photo, but when completed, the survey (a carefully prepared series of questions whose answers will be processed through a computer program) promises to give the Smithsonian for the first time a picture of the size, shape, and health of its vast photography holdings. To date, when asked, “How many photographs does the Smithsonian have,” the answer, depending on the occasion and the person doing the asking, varies: millions; lots; more than enough. For nearly as long as the Smithsonian has existed the effort to keep track of its ever-growing photography collections has been a thankless, and (though no one wants to admit it) impossible task. Photography, beloved handmaiden of scientists, historians, and artists alike, is just so wonderfully easy to produce and reproduce. As the commentaries of SPI’s click! photography changes everything project suggests, since its invention in the mid-19th century, photography has been basic to every discipline. Other institutions like Harvard University, The Library of Congress, and The New York Public Library have turned to modern technologies to help solve the “what” and “how many” crisis of photography. Like the Smithsonian, they have accumulated millions of photographs, and also like the Smithsonian the photographic collections are spread out in a variety of disciplinary repositories housed in many departments, often separated by different buildings and bureaucratic hierarchies. Whether catalogued as science, history, or art, the thing all photographs share is the demands of conservation and preservation. And each of these institutions had the same challenge of finding out the size and shape of vast photographic collections. Using the same survey tool that we’re planning on at the Smithsonian, they were able to achieve a compilation and assessment of information from many collections and create a useful database for planning for the future care of their collections. The blind men may see the proverbial elephant at last. And as pointed out by Melissa Banta, Program Officer for Photographs at the Weissman Preservation Center, Harvard University Library, the survey also helped identify areas of interconnection between collections with possibilities for programming and curatorial projects; it contributed to a new way of thinking about photos as primary sources; and it allowed researchers to know where to go to find images. At Harvard, the survey was an impetus to put together an online directory of all the photos across the institution with links to digitized materials within each collection along with an alphabetical list of repositories. The words “money and time” are a reasonable response, especially in these challenging economic times, to any institution contemplating this kind of effort. But without a plan of action, neither of those items can be obtained. And the survey may give that plan to us. Of course the added complication is that today, most photographs are born digital. Strategies for storing and using those images are being worked on. But for now this survey is using contemporary methods for learning about historic photographs. Surveying collections is not really about answering the “how many,” but rather giving focus to the large enterprise of photography and realizing how significant the medium is to the work of any large multi-disciplinary institution. It will result in better and safer storage for photographs and greater access to the knowledge they contain.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
The Nobel Prize jury recently announced three winners in physics, who’ve been dubbed "the masters of light" for their innovations in the ways photographic images are captured and distributed. Charles Kuen Kao was awarded half of the $1.4 million prize money for his groundbreaking achievement in fiber optics. Of more specific interest to THE BIGGER PICTURE, the other half of the award is being split by two researchers, William Boyle and George Smith, who worked together at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey years ago, and whose 1969 invention of the CCD sensor, made digital imaging possible and transformed photography in the process. “Together,” said Frederick Dylla, director of the American Insitute of Physics, quoted in a recent Chicago Tribune article, “these inventions may have had a greater impact on humanity than any others in the last half-century." If you’re like us, and like to explore the ways photography transforms our lives and world, which we do in our online project click! photography changes everything, you understand that Dylla’s not exaggerating. CCDs are based on the photoelectric effect, which Albert Einstein, who seldom shied away from cameras, won a 1921 Nobel Prize for discovering. CCDs are, simply put, arrays of photo cells that translate light into electrical signals. They turn optical images into digital ones. They made cell phone cameras (which Philippe Kahn, one of our click! contributors pioneered) possible and practical. They are essential to medical photography and for making the kinds of diagnostic images that ophthalmic photographer Michael Kelly described in his story for click!. If you’re in the dark about how CCDs were discovered and record light, take a look Charlie Sorrel’s helpful post on WIRED News to understand why this Nobel Prize choice is such big photo story.
It’s October already and the beginning of full-fledged fall in D.C.
Autumn is . . .
Crisp skies and fog—the air just starts to look cold, no?
The beauty of changing leaves and their pleasant wet smell in the air.
Harvest time, marking the end of the growing season . . .
. . . and the beginning of Fall festival season (featuring giant corn wagons??).
“Spirits” in photographs . . .
. . . and in the sky.
Spooky things (or cute things, depending on your outlook)— like bats (!) . . .
Pumpkins, and masks, and of course . . .
. . . Halloween parties (complete with cowgirls, clowns, and colonists)!
Link to any of your favorite fall photos in the Smithsonian collections in the comments.
If you happen to walk by a museum or a library one evening this weekend, and there's a light on inside, or perhaps a flicker in the window, don't pass it by. There's a good chance that you stumbled on The Common Ground: a community curated meetup.
The Common Ground gatherings are being hosted by museums and libraries around the world to celebrate The Commons on Flickr and the wonderful community that has made it flourish. There will be a slideshow and snacks! No, not boring vacation snaps, but a slideshow of photos that were chosen from across The Commons by anyone who took a few minutes to vote on their favorites.
Here's where to find it on Saturday:
Sweden: Visby town on the island of Gotland, Medieval St. Karin Church
Swedish National Heritage Board
Saturday, October 3
8 to 11 p.m.
Powerhouse Museum (co-hosted by the State Library of New South Wale)
Saturday, October 3
The Australian War Memorial
Saturday, October 3
10:00 a.m.-5 p.m.
Safety Harbor, Florida
Safety Harbor Public Library
Saturday, October 3
Just the other day we received a comment on one of our photos in the new Flickr Commons set of lantern slides from the Archives of American Gardens. A visitor was interested to know whether or not the black border on one of the lantern slides within the set was original. (For the record, the border is in fact original to the slide.) Looking into this inquiry, I received an education in how lantern slides are made, and so I thought I would share.
“Magic Lantern Slide” technology actually predates the invention of photography. Originally, glass slides made from drawings or paintings were held up in a device, lit up by lantern or candle light, and projected on a wall. The resulting projections were often animated and accompanied by music as a form of entertainment. Understandably, these fantastical lantern slide shows fascinated audiences living in a time before film and photography.
[A 19th century glass magic lantern slide of a tiger. The eyes and mouth are both painted on separate, movable plates, creating the illusion of an animated tiger when the slide is projected. From YouTube user, iamthedigitalme.]
When photography emerged in the mid-1800s, it was a natural fit for the “Magic Lantern” technology. Basically, a photographic lantern slide is a positive print of a photograph on a glass slide. Often times the photographic negatives were painstakingly hand-colored to make them even more visually enticing. Many photographic lantern slides were also “matted” by a piece of opaque paper laid on the slide, which both masked out edges or parts of the image not wanted in the frame, and created the desirable aesthetic appearance of a mounted photograph. Finally, a second slide of glass was laid atop the glass slide with the positive print and these two pieces of glass were bound firmly together by pasting a strip of paper around the edges. The sandwiched glass plates held the matte or mask in place and also protected the positive photographic print from dust, scratches, and the like. The final slide was then ready to be viewed in a lantern slide projector.
Photographic lantern slides took off in the late 19th century as a popular form of entertainment, and in addition to educators, missionaries and salespeople soon began to use Magic Lantern slides to visually entice the audience while educating, spreading their messages, and peddling their wares. In this sense, lantern slides were a kind of precursor to the Power Point presentations we’re all so familiar with now.
By the 1930s and 40s, lantern slides dropped off in use as overhead projectors and slide projectors took their place. However, for me, lantern slides continue to hold a certain charm. I imagine the speechless awe of an audience as an image rises up the wall and shimmers there. And I imagine a photographer, hunched over a slide with a tiny paintbrush, coloring his world beautiful, and capturing some of that magical essence between these thin sheets of glass.