The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
One of the thrills of seeing—when you stop to pay attention to it—is how complex and quickly the process of looking and making sense of what we see happens. According to researchers like Aude Oliva, who works in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we grasp the “gist of a scene” rapidly. We are wired to extract a lot of information from a surprisingly small amount of visual input in an instant. Which brings us to the subject of picture postcards. In thinking about photography’s role and impact on our lives, we wanted to find someone to write a piece for click! about the circumstances in which we use photographs to sum up our experiences quickly and to speak for us. Luckily for us, Luc Sante, a writer and critic known for his essays on photography and cultural phenomena, has recently published Folk Photography, in which he tracks the early 20th century production and popularity of real-photo postcards. As you read the piece Luc Sante wrote for click!, what becomes clear is that our desire to distribute images that communicate whatever strikes us as interesting and/or unusual, continues to this day, and that it has been continually transformed by whatever imaging technologies we have at hand. In the 1980s, entrepreneurs marketed glue-on labels to be adhered to the back of 4x6 drugstore-type color prints, turning snapshots into one-of-a-kind mail-able messages.
Today, with digital technology—and the help of our computers, cell-phone cameras, and smart phones—the production process and the products of the postcard era seem nostalgic and quaint. If you haven’t already, read another click! piece, by Philippe Kahn, the inventor of the cell-phone camera, that brings the story Sante tells into the present, and confirms how we continue to make and circulate images in order to share our sense of wonder as we move through the world and our lives.
(To hear the Marvelettes 1961 Motown hit, "Please Mr. Postman," about the anticipation of receiving postcards and letter, click here.)
Given how quickly photographs are spread by the news and social media, we’ve come to assume that if photos of an historic or catastrophic event are available, they’ll be available in large numbers and almost immediately. But a recent Associated Press article suggests that’s not always the case.
A small number of photos shot by now-retired NYC Police Detective Greg Semendinger, the only policeman allowed in the airspace around the World Trade Center on 9/11, were only recently released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the government agency that investigated the towers’ collapse, and only after ABC news filed a Freedom of Information Act request for them, last year.
In spite of all the images of 9/11 that have been published or broadcast, these previously unseen pictures are startling for the seemingly objective overview and perspective on the scene that they provide. Most of the photos and video we’ve previously seen—shot at or from street level, from windows and rooftops in Manhattan, or from the shores of Brooklyn or New Jersey—capture the shock, drama and tragic aftermath of what transpired in 2001, but from conventional journalistic perspectives. Seen then and to this day, it is hard to view them without having a visceral reaction to the destruction and aftermath they depict. (A clip from YouTube shows the Twin Towers, the police helicopter circling above (starting around 1:10), and the collapse of the first building.)
In a piece David Friend, author of Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2006), wrote for click! photography changes everything, he described the central role photographic images played in telling the story of 9/11 as it unfolded. “What mesmerized each observer, surely, was the gravity of sudden death, in numbers of such magnitude. But they were also gripped by the pure visual spectacle—by the sense that this irreconcilably infernal scene was somehow meant to be seen .... The attacks were considered the most photographed breaking news event in human history, witnessed on television and the Internet that day by an estimated two billion people—a third of the human race.”
What the newly released photos depict is different from what we know and have come to expect—a God’s-eye view of the scene in which the carnage, panic and bravery on the ground don’t register at all, at first. What dominates, instead, is billowing smoke and ash, which we now know was made up of building and airplane debris and human remains. These cool, forensic images were probably invaluable to investigations, but they are chilling to re-consider now, as we try to connect the near-abstract and dispassionate views from above with what we know was experienced down below.
"I almost didn't realize what I was seeing that day," Semendinger, told AP. Looking at it now it's amazing I took those pictures . . . It was surreal. There was no sound. No sound whatsoever, but the noise of the radio and the helicopter. I just kept taking pictures."
Across the Smithsonian, in hundreds of photographic collections, you’ll find images that document historic objects and events, species on land and under the oceans, cultural achievement, and data that streams in from outer space on a daily basis.
But in the course of sorting through those images—as we often do—we come across photos that reflect or reveal things less easily pictured or pinned down, like emotions. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, we’ve combed through Smithsonian archives and databases for images about love and romance. And as you might expect, and know from experience, love sometimes turns up in the strangest of places.