The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: click! photography changes everything
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how digital imaging continues to up the ante on what we expect or want from photography. Given all the images that are being posted, shared and archived online daily, I called Steve Hoffenberg, Director of Consumer Imaging Research at Lyra Research in Massachusetts, to chat about their spread and dematerialization. (To read an interesting piece Steve wrote about the digital revolution for the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s project, click! photography changes everything, click here.) Basically, what I wanted to learn from Steve was whether people who seem to be taking more and more pictures were printing out fewer and fewer of them. The answer, in a word, is yes. While people taking pictures with digital cameras tended to print out about 15% of them, people who take pictures with cell or smart phones print out far less frequently, even as they archive massive numbers of images online. It’s now estimated that every month 3 billion new photographs get uploaded on Facebook alone. Image storage on such a massive scale—coming on top of recent media speculation that Facebook may be going public in the not-so-distant future—makes some people worry about the security and their eventual ability to access to pictures they’re warehousing on photo sites. The way consumers are dealing with the problem is, ironically, to go back to printing out and then archiving pictures as people traditionally have in the past—in object form as loose prints that get organized in scrapbooks and albums, or stuffed into bags or shoeboxes. According to Hoffenberg, research now shows that people most likely to make prints are, surprisingly, digital natives, and particularly young couples in their 20s, taking pictures of their kids, who don’t trust that the social media sites they use so heavily will still be in business a couple of years, let alone a couple of decades, down the road. So, I was interested to come across an Associated Press article in early January reporting on a new service launched by a parent wanting to insure that the pictures he was taking of his daughter would be around and available when she grew up. “People definitely have a false sense of security,” said Kai Pommerenke, an economist who founded Chronicle of Life in 2009. “Digital data is fragile,” he’s said. “You have to do something active in order to preserve it.” As professionals know all too well, and consumers are coming to realize, saving digital imagery requires constant diligence to keep up with technology and keep data loss at bay. Chronicle of Life, a 501C-3 not-for-profit, maintains that it will provide as high a level of attention and care to clients’ personal digital files as major institutions already give to their own data. The service backs content up on servers in the U.S. and in Ireland. Regular software checks are designed to prevent file corruption. And as file formats, like JPEGs, become obsolete, Chronicle of Life promises to convert the uploaded files entrusted to them to whatever the new standard may become. Forever. What’s the price tag for digital perpetual care? More than you’d expect, especially if you’re looking for all-purpose backup or make and save lots of pictures. According to the service’s website, three-quarter of monies collected are earmarked to build an endowment so the Chronicle of Life will be self-sustaining. The bulk of what’s left is budgeted to hire staff to oversee, monitor, and manage the data in years to come. Does that sound reassuring? That depends on how trusting you are or how proactive you’re willing to be to insure that documents of time-gone-by remain viewable in the future.
In 2000, as an answer to the question, “does the Smithsonian have an important collection of photography, and if it does, what’s so important about it?” we launched the Smithsonian Photography Initiative. The idea was not to focus on how many images there were around the Mall—the continual proliferation of images makes counting photographs an impossible task in any case, and one that was already nobly being addressed in all corners of the Institution—but rather to contemplate the role photographs played at the Institution. Given the multi-disciplined collections of the Smithsonian, we thought in so doing, we might also get at the nature of photography itself. And given the growing role that digital technologies played in giving institutions like the Smithsonian unprecedented opportunities to access vast collections, the powerful meaning of images—how they got here and how they function—seemed an important thing to know. Too, photography itself seemed at a crossroads: how it is made, how it is shared, how it has changed, and is changed by the people who make images and use images. It also was important to embrace new platforms for exhibiting and publishing images. So, www.photography.si.edu was created. Part online exhibition space, part online publishing house, part online forum, SPI’s website, with projects like click! photography changes everything and THE BIGGER PICTURE blog, was an experiment in sharing images and ideas. In one of the first blog posts I submitted to THE BIGGER PICTURE, I wrote that photographs give us a reason to tell stories. Sometimes the stories are about the subject of the photograph, sometimes about the photographer, or what was going on when the photograph was taken. Sometimes the photograph reminds one of another photograph and another moment. Now, ten years after the Photography Initiative began, it has become a part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. It is a fitting home, as one of the richest places to mine the many stories of photography at the Smithsonian, and the history of the Institution itself. The Initiative that began as an experiment has now proved successful as a model for innovative, pan-institutional, online collaborations. When I began my career at the Smithsonian, I and the Institution had only the most rudimentary awareness of the importance of photographs to its mission, and the notion that images could be shared across something called the Internet was not even a dream. Today the riches of the Smithsonian’s collections of photographs are widely recognized, all of our museums display photographs on a regular basis, and efforts to digitize and make available these images online are gaining ever more momentum. Over the next decade, as thousands more images and the information that supports them are made available online, the digital Smithsonian will continue to tell stories using images. We can only imagine! This is my last blog post for THE BIGGER PICTURE. I leave the Smithsonian after nearly thirty years at the end of this month.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
You’ve probably noticed, in recent years, that in order to attract shoppers’ attention retail establishments have been filling both exterior and interior display spaces with big, colorful, and evocative photographic images. At venues as diverse as Abercrombie & Fitch, CVS, and the big box stores, slickly produced lifestyle photographs—of rippling abs, shiny tomatoes, sexy digital things, and smiley senior citizens—are installed and replaced often in order to catch your eye and seduce you into purchasing what you may or may not really need. In exploring how photography changes everything, and specifically the way we shop, we invited Paco Underhill, an expert in shopping behavior and merchandising, to shed some historical light on how visual displays get us into stores and move us through them.
In his piece for click!, Underhill reminds us that whether you’re in the medina in Marrakesh or trekking through the Mall of America, eye-catching presentations of goods are critical to commercial culture’s success. Today, it’s changing photo printing technology that’s making it easier and more cost-effective for retailers to communicate with and ensnare us. During much of the twentieth century, photographic images played a central and simpler role in print advertising, introducing new products and helping differentiate one brand from the next. Now, photography’s powers can be exploited in more sophisticated and subtle ways, and on a more spectacular scale. We walk by, between, or through images that create an through-the-looking-glass kind of experience in which we literally start to feel part of a picture-perfect world that results from buying the right thing.
It may seem as if photographic images have already overtaken retail real estate. They’re in display windows and on packaging. Banners dangle in atriums and over escalators. Decals are stuck to freezer doors and on linoleum floors. And yet, there’s always room for more. A few weeks ago, a company called Automated Media Sevices announced the introduction of 3GTv Networks™, a retail game-changer they claim will not only speed up the installation of multiple television monitors in retail environments, but will finally allow media agencies to buy and monitor advertising time in stores, much like they do on network and cable TV. Forget the forlorn and poorly programmed flat screen you may have seen hovering over the vegetables and a supermarket or two. In tests at nine supermarkets in Maryland and Virginia this summer, monitors of various shapes and sizes, will be attached to shelves and suspended over the aisles. As AMS describes it on their website, “art and science converge as experts from the fields of micro-electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, television metrics and analysis, retail marketing services, and graphics design collaborate to improve the television-advertising platform to create the 21st century form of television.” For a more user friendly, cartoon version of their pitch, watch below. Happy shopping!
Since The Bigger Picture began in early 2009, I’ve written a number of posts about what might be called camera traps, situations where cameras are installed to collect evidence of one kind of unusual or unwanted behavior or another. Red light cameras are a controversial example; across the country and on an almost daily basis, local municipalities and motorists argue about whether roadside-mounted video camera should be employed primarily for public safety, surveillance or economic reasons. And while people may decry the big-brotherish spread of surveillance cameras, mounted in the name of national security all around the world, these camera traps do sometimes provide essential information about the comings and goings of terrorists, as security expert Bruce Hoffman explained to us in his piece for our project, click! photography changes everything.
About a week or so ago, though, I came across a report about a camera trap of a different kind that—and sorry for the pun, in advance—literally stopped me in my tracks. It turns out that wildlife biologists and conservationists (including Smithsonian scientists) routinely set up laser-riggered, remote-control camera traps to study the incidence and behaviors of hard-to-track species in inaccessible locales around the world. In a June 8th post for his Dot Earth blog for the New York Times, Andrew C. Revkin described an unusual discovery made by Wildlife Conservation Society biologists at work in Central America. While scientists had been experimenting with the use of various perfumes and colognes as animal attractants since 2003, in this specific instance it turns out that Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men hit the olfactory hot-spot for jaguars slinking through the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. Here’s an amazing video that confirms that fact:
You might want to turn your attention to two other remarkable videos that show Obsession For Men’s startling impact on mammals of the human variety. The first is one of the original 1980s television commercials that introduced the scent and, in retrospect, looks hilarious and reeks of period pretentiousness. The second and more contemporary video, a contemporary son’s lament about his father’s stubborn attachment to the Calvin Klein scent only underscores the fact that there’s no accounting for what brings out the animal in each of us.
I’m a fan of yearbooks. I was an editor of mine in college, a somewhat unusual, multi-volume, and boxed object that included two books, a booklet, a brochure, and (it being the late sixties) a balloon. Back then, we thought we’d made something cool that would last forever. My copy still exists—I just came across it in the basement—but when I checked online today to see if I could locate another one, all I could turn up was one volume from the set, its orange cover (it being designed in the late sixties) lightly soiled, a little crooked, and showing some wear at the extremities. The same thing can probably today about the now-aging baby boomers so prominently pictured in the second volume, the one that seems to have slipped away.
In recent years, it turns out, the production of yearbooks has dropped precipitously. An online piece by the Associated College Press in 2004 describes how Florida State University, tried to resurrect publication of its yearbook, The Renegade, by taking part in what then looked like an innovative program (see their 1987-1988 video yearbook above). After budget cuts at the school precluded the administration’s funding the yearbook, Dallas-based Taylor Publishing, one of the five big yearbook producing companies, not only fronted printing and distribution costs, but even gave FSU $15,000 to hire a yearbook adviser and editor, design the book, and cover other miscellaneous costs along the way. Taylor figured they’d keep 90% of profits, give the school the remaining 10% and everyone would walk away happy.
Who knows how that deal worked out, but just four years later, online reports of the demise of yearbooks had become commonplace. A 2008 story for The Economist reports on print runs nose-diving, and yearbooks being dropped altogether, for a number of reasons including high prices, huge hikes in tuition fees, and the fact that social networking sites now presented students with more interesting, accurate, and cost-free ways to represent themselves and their shared experience. As one college biology major at the University of Texas questioned by a reporter for ABC News put it, "I feel that paying $85 to have a book with pictures of people you don't know in it is kind of an undesired product for most students."
As Shannon Perich, curator of Photography at the National Museum of American History, writes in her piece for click! photography changes everything, even in the 19th century, there were college graduates eager to create interactive and one-of-a-kind photographic representations of their higher education. Click here to read her story about a photographic entrepreneur and a Civil War era artifact that speaks about photography and memory, but even more poignantly about friendship, love of country, loss, and a unique artifact that survived to tell multiple tales.