The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
- Cigarettes and gardenias . . . The Smithsonian Institution Libraries blog checks out old trade literature on women, commerce, and society.
- Beautiful digital flipbooks at Mediastorm. I thought that the Iraqi Kurdistan series was especially striking for its nuanced look at everyday life in Iraq, sans US troops and suicide bombers. [via Effie Kapsalis, SPI]
- And speaking of reportage, check out A Developing Story, a very interesting website examining photojournalism and other media produced in the developing world.
- Just received an email about the exhibition at AAnonymes.org, which aims to help you "find the accident deliberately," by showcasing 365-days-worth of vernacular photography. There are some weird delights on there.
- Haha! The Subconscious Shelf over at The New Yorker psychoanalyzes you via pictures of your bookcases.
- Colin Pantall pointed me in the direction of a very strange body of work by artist Koen Hauser, De Luister van het Land ("The Glory of the Land"), which is a new body of work made from materials from the Spaarnestad Photo Archive, one of the largest press archives in Europe. Some of the portraits mimic photos of curators and preperators from the Smithsonian, and all of the work gives a strong, if unclear, sense of the overwhelming variety of stuff contained in visual archives everywhere.
- I've been enjoying the DC Public Library sets on the Flickr Commons, including some cool Then vs. Now shots and some beautiful color images of the Smithsonian.
- Thanks to Jeanne of Spellbound Blog for her cool animated .gif, comparing our Flickr Commons Women in Science set with our male-dominated Portraits of Scientists and Inventors set.
- How did I not know about this before? UbuWeb is an online archive devoted to "avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts." I'll definitely be spending a lot of time here, especially in their film section. In honor of Spring rainshowers, I bring you this little-known ditty by Ralph Steiner, a photographer from my alma mater, whose work I happened across while in college:
From the beginning, photography upset conventional ideas about the relationship between life and art by altering the way we perceive reality. Ralph Waldo Emerson had some very definite ideas about this: describing his first camera portrait in October 1841 (only a year after photography had arrived in this country) he wrote in his journal: “Were you every daguerreotyped, O immortal man? And did you look with all vigor at the lens of the camera . . . to give the picture the full benefit of your expanded and flashing eye?” Emerson further characterized his portrait sitting as a play between the inner man and his outward countenance. In an effort to have his portrait present the serious face of an important American writer, he writes that he clenched his fist as if “for flight or despair” and muscled his brow into a fearsome frown, and made his eyes “fixed as they are fixed in a fit, in madness, or in death.” And while most of us are often unhappy with the results of the camera’s work, Emerson finishes with a thought that really strikes home: when the image is finished, while “the hands are true,” and the shape of the face is clear and correct, unhappily, the expression of the sitter is that of a “mask.” The fault as Emerson saw it was not whether or not the photograph did or did not capture our likeness, but that it fixed us at that moment for all time. Rendering the ephemeral as permanent implied the possibility of images that might themselves exert greater influence on viewers than the actual subjects. The photographer hero of Emerson’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables declares that “While we give [the image] credit only for depicting the merest surface, it actually brings out the secret character with a truth that no painter would ever venture upon . . .” Like the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, (who also wrote about the nature of photography) the photographic image raises the issue of the supernatural by virtue of the perfection of its description of things pictured out of the ordinary, “a place where the Actual and the Imaginary meet.”
What do historical archives tell us about our current selves? The vast photographic collections of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives hold images created and used by a range of scientists and explorers that have become the evidence of the early years of what has now become the sub discipline of visual anthropology. Ethnologists, geologists, geographers, soldiers, and merchants all needed images to understand, describe, or organize the colonized countries. By and large, it was an interpretation made by white men for white men. But while addressing these historical materials we might also consider, as visual anthropologist Elizabeth Edwards pointed out in her click! photography changes everything piece the meaning and authority of photographs change, depending on how they are used and who they are seen by. The collections of the National Portrait Gallery show us the faces of great and or notorious Americans. The iconic face of terror that Bruce Hoffman describes in his essay for click! is a further reminder that images demand a context and a purpose. Who would guess that John Swartz’s photograph of dapper gents in bowler hats were otherwise known as Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch?
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
I took a stroll at lunch today since it’s that time of year again when the magnolia trees bloom in the Smithsonian Castle’s Enid Haupt Garden. It’s important to catch it before a rain or a big breeze snatches them away. A lot of things are popping out this time of year, from trees to tour buses. As I noticed the growing number of visitors, wondering if they were on vacation or like me, on a lunch break, I was struck by how much I’ve become accustomed to free. The free museums at the Smithsonian, the free concerts at the Kennedy Center, the free outdoor Shakespeare at Carter Barron… there’s even a blog dedicated to free in D.C. We here at the Smithsonian are all about free; from the film series at the Freer Sackler to the lecture series at the Hirshhorn. We also rely heavily on ‘free’ to get things done, including at THE BIGGER PICTURE. When we need an image to illustrate an idea and we don’t have it in our collections or it isn’t yet digitized, we turn to Flickr and Wikimedia and search out photos designated in the Creative Commons or public domain. Many of our posts, especially the News in the Visual posts, just wouldn’t be the same without it. (Note to reader: the "News in the Visual" posts referenced here have been moved to the "What Gets Saved" category.) I can't help but think about what the Smithsonian's first photographer, Thomas Smillie, would think of all of the online photo sharing. I would like to think he'd be excited that some of his early work is in the Flickr Commons. This quote, which he made around the opening of his exhibit on photography and photographic technology, makes me think he would want to get the word out by sharing some of his photos online: About thirty-five years ago, in the midst of the struggle to keep up with the times, or if possible to get in advance of them, I paused to look backward, and only then realized that many of the remarkable things which had been done in photography were already forgotten, and worse still, the material evidence of them were fast passing away, so I at once gathered such representative specimens as were within my reach and put them away, thus forming the nucleus of the present museum exhibit. Here’s to free!