The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Ditched Once, Loved Still
A couple of years ago, in the process of curating Now is Then, an exhibition for the Newark Museum, I spent some time researching and thinking about the content, meaning and sequential lives of snapshots. Since their introduction in the late 19th century, inestimable numbers of those small, but powerful pictures have been made, looked at and saved—at least for a while. Inevitably, though, snapshots are destined to lose their original audiences and meaning as time passes, and that’s when their future gets dicey. Some continue to be preserved as cherished objects in family albums, as long as someone’s still around to be interested in identifying or at least speculating about the people, places, and events depicted. Some snapshots get preserved for longer term and different reasons when they enter museum collections as cultural, as opposed to personal, artifacts.
Still other snapshots acquire new, dematerialized and virtual lives if they’re lucky enough to be archived on websites like The Square America Snapshot Archive, which features “excerpts from the annals of everyday life” in the hope of creating “a complete account, rendered in photographs, of everything that has ever happened.” If that archival ambition is impressive, so are the pictures which tend toward quirkiness and reveal the differences between intention and outcome, and the original and ultimate uses and pleasures of photographs.
As digital imaging and the spread of cell phone cameras change how and why we take pictures, you’ve got to wonder in what form snapshots will be made and archived in the future. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with Steve Hoffenberg, an imaging industry analyst who wrote a great piece last year for the Smithsonian Photography Initiative project, click! photography changes everything. Steve told me that while it’s an indisputable fact that most consumers are making fewer physical print-outs of images, the identity of those who still print up their snapshots was surprising; it’s the digital natives—particularly the twenty-something-year-old parents of young children. While they might be part of the demographic horde that uploads an estimated 3 billion personal photographs to Facebook every month, they’re not so sure that the pictures they’re posting will be still be accessible to them and their offspring, down the road. Lesson learned? As photography and archives evolve, the more things change, the more some things remain the same.