The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Now you see it, sometimes you don’t, but thank goodness for archives
Years ago, when the National Endowment for the Arts had a Visual Arts Program to give out individual artist grants, a week was set aside for a group of photo experts (referred to in fellowship-ese as a “peer panel”) to choose which American photographers would receive grants that year. I served several times and the experience was both exhilarating and exhausting. Day after day we sat in a darkened room—imagine a Plato’s Cave armed with slide projectors—and looked at projected images. For hours at a time two rows of six photographs appeared over and over: ka-chunk went the projectors and a set of images and then again ka-chunk and twelve more images. Though at first you might not think this would yield the best and brightest of photographers deserving of support from a federal arts program, in fact, by week’s end all of us agreed that not only had we made the correct choices, but in return we had been given a unique overview of the current field of American photography. Today, the Smithsonian American Art museum holds nearly 2,000 photographs transferred from the National Endowment Fellowship Program. Seen together they make up an interesting overview of the photographic zeitgeist of the 1970s and 1980s. (Many can be seen online here). I also remember that the selection process a few moments of image over load. Occasionally, as we reviewed the images which had made it through to the next round, I would have the jolt of seeing something I had never seen before, except of course I had. You’ll have to believe me that the visual aphasia was not a product of a quick snooze. Rather, my brain had simply seen enough and for a quick few seconds turned off the picture and re-booted. I’ve always been interested to know how and why this happens in our increasingly image-filled world, and thanks to Jeremy Wolfe and other scientists who study visual attention, we know lots more about the way our neurons fire around images. Read Wolfe’s contribution to click! to learn more. Photo archivists are used to dealing with thousands and thousands of images, and now in a digital age millions if not billions of images. And not surprisingly archives themselves are coming up with useful and intriguing solutions for gaining intellectual access to their vast databases. The Visible Archive is a research project on the visualization of the huge museum collection currently held by the National Archives of Australia. At its core it is a search tool; in effect it is a method of creating different kinds of overall descriptions, whether they be clouds of words or visual designs based on use, of an archive and the people who use it. At the Smithsonian we’re beginning to tackle similar projects that will give us an overall impression of the millions of items contained in collections throughout the institution. And then it will be up to you to use the collections in ever more creative ways and inform the rest of us.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.