The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: click! photography changes everything
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.
For all that’s been said about the form and content of photographic images, few of us are aware of how the ways we actually see, process, and remember photos helps to explain their power over us. Say what you will about the skills or “vision” of gifted picture-makers, but early on in the process of working on click! photography changes everything, I began to wonder if there weren’t some physiological and neurological reasons that could more objectively explain why photographs evoke such immediate and powerful responses from us. So, I decided to try to seek out researchers who might be able to shed some light on what happens when we look at an image. How we, literally, perceive, access and remember the information in the photographic images that we see.
Perhaps naively, I called a “brain institute” at a local university, explained what I was up to, and inquired if there was someone around who might help me test out my vague ideas about photography and perception. To my surprise, the person who answered the phone said, “Wait, here’s a scientist,” and passed the receiver over to someone who, from the sound of things, happened to be walking by when my call came in. I explained what we, at the Smithsonian Photography Initiative, were up to, and posed the first question that popped into my mind: “Is there a difference between what we see when we look at a photograph of something, as opposed to looking directly at the thing, itself?” The response I got—one I’ve heard a number of times, as we reached out to potential contributors for click!, who we invited them to think about photographic images from new perspectives—was, “Nobody’s every asked me that question before.”
Realizing that what I was asking was probably too broad and philosophically fraught, I spent some time coming up with more specific queries before I started the next round of cold calls to more targeted researchers in the field. Luckily, one of the first people I spoke with was Jeremy Wolfe—director of the Visual Attention Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and a professor of Ophthalmology at Harvard University—who immediately got what I was after and generously explained some aspects of the work he and some of his colleagues were up to. For click!, Wolfe has written a story that describes how quickly and emphatically photographic images imprint themselves as, and in memory. The experiment he presents to illustrate the point is as startling as it is simple. See for yourself. Click here…
For the last year the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has been preparing to celebrate its 100 year anniversary. As part of the celebration, curators and archivists have been combing the files in preparation for an exhibition of historic photographs that will describe the museum’s history.
It also reminds us of the interesting history of photography and science. Born from a marriage of chemistry and optics and nurtured by artists and entrepreneurs, photography entered the world as unique, modern hybrid—part science, part art, part industry, part craft—yet its purely empirical usefulness for observing and reporting on the natural and man-made world was recognized from the beginning. As part of a broad mid-19th century roster of scientifically useful discoveries and inventions, photography brought records of biological specimens, geological structures, and all manner of previously unseen physical evidence into the laboratories of scientists around the world. As illustrations, photographs wielded the authority of realism: they were, after all, literally taken from life and the promised to bring knowledge through visual representations. However, not all of the scientific uses of photography have produced purely empirical results. This was especially true in the study of our own species. Comparative anatomy and anthropology, two scientific fields born in the same century as photography, adopted the camera as a means of cataloguing and classifying the world’s peoples. While such activity seemed innocent enough when directed towards, say, animals at the National Zoo, its application to humans was often problematic. Read, for example, Carol Squiers' recent essay for click! about the use of photographs and eugenics. Today, we recognize many of these photographs less as science and more as evidence of how cultures can devise “proof positive” to fit their own preconceptions.
Nevertheless, even culturally biased images can convey valuable information. The thousands of photographs taken of American Indians that are now housed in the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, many of them catalogued by tribe and geographic location, may have been intended as a tribute to what was in the 19th century romantically, if erroneously, called “the vanishing race,” but they nonetheless supply evidence of tribal dress and activity that remains important to both modern anthropologists and the subjects’ ancestors. The same could be said of “historical” pictures, like the ones made by Civil War photographers who staged images to suit the demands of newspapers or government officials: they contain useful information, but that evidence must be viewed in the context of the intentions and preconceived notions of the photography and, often, the employer or the institution for which the photographs were made. What contemporary scientists have learned about their own laboratory work also holds true for photographs: the presence of an observer cannot help but change what is observed. As a result, photographs are no longer necessarily believed to be “proofs” but rather are considered with a critical eye in the interest of separating facts from fictions.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
Most of us know what it’s like to be the subject of a photograph and to take one, to be seen and to see. But some of us, due to unusual circumstances, know more about that than others. In her 1984 autobiography, Knock Wood, Candice Bergen wrote with insight about the ways photography impacted her life, for better and worse. As one of the 1950s most frequently photographed celebrity offspring, and later as a movie and television star, much of Bergen’s success comes from knowing how to navigate a world defined and shaped by images. That’s why we invited her to be part of click!.
Bergen zeroes in on the period in her life time, starting in the late 1960s, when she decided to position herself on the other side of the camera’s lens, as a photographer. Having grown up in awe of photojournalists like Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke White, and after meeting Mary Ellen Mark in college, Bergen bought her first camera with money from modeling assignments, thinking that photography might provide her with a more direct and authentic way to engage with the world than her work as a model and young movie star did. If, for a few years, Bergen chose to describe herself as a photojournalist on her passport, it was because she felt that the “truth” of photography could help her sort out the “untruth” of filmmaking and celebrity.
Not surprisingly, and given how the media works, as Bergen’s visibility and celebrity rose so did opportunities for her to make and publish photographs. In the 1970s, and during the rise of what was called the “new journalism,” media outlets eagerly engaged contributors like Bergen, to bring their subjective perspectives to the work of recording and responding to the tumultuous cultural change of the time. Bergen was commissioned to write articles for, and publish images in magazines such as LIFE, Esquire, New York, Ladies Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan, and to produce photographic projects for The Today Show and NBC Sports.
With humor and self-deprecating honesty, Bergen describes not only how her interest in photography began, but how and why it ended, once she realized that taking pictures—which had once seemed like the best way for her to see, engage with, and record the world—had become a passionate diversion. To read her story, click here . . .
- Updates on The Impossible Project—Polaroid enthusiasts’ mission to bring the film back into production.
- Charlotte Cotton: “how do we respond meaningfully to the mass energy of citizen photography or print-on-demand publishing if the canon that distinguished a very few from the ever so many is our overriding mandate?” If you haven’t already checked it out, read responses to SFMOMA’s question, “Is photography over,” before the participants discuss at a summit on April 22.
- Fred Ritchin writes about “hyperphotography,” or the notion that in the hyper-textual environment of the Web, we should be thinking of “photographs or even pieces of photographsas nodes that link to a variety of other media . . . rather than as images that are sufficient in and of themselves.” One among many fascinating pieces of writing in Harvard’s Nieman Report on Visual Journalism.
- Screen Search Fashion—film stills from the 1920s and 30s showing the fashions of the times. [via The Scout Report]
- Visual artists suing Google because they say Google Books' large-scale digitization amounts to copyright infringement.
- Where the Heads of the Renowned Rest is a series of photos by artist Mohammad Ghazali, which look at Tehran from the viewpoint of monumental statues of famous Iranians installed around the city just found in Dide Magazine. Dide (which means "eye", "glance", " being seen" in Persian), is an Iranian online photo magazine published in both Farsi and English. Always on the lookout for international photo blogs and e-zines, so feel free to throw out favorites in the comments! [via Mrs. Deane]
- Another reminder of the power of photography and memory à la Jeff Sandoz’s click! story on Alzheimer’s and photography. Check out photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron’s project My Mother’s Clothes, which documents the artist’s attempts to jog her fashionista mother’s memories amidst the onset of dementia via photographs of her favorite accessories and items of clothes [via style court].
- The last acres of wilderness in Manhattan: