The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Contemporary Photography
About seven years ago, I was invited by Merry Foresta—director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative from 2000 to 2010—to participate in a project that was designed to explore and raise awareness of the fourteen-million-or-so photographs residing in various Smithsonian collections and archives. The challenge was both daunting and a dream come true, given my fascination with, and respect for, the roles photographic images play in visual culture and in the shaping of institutions as complex as the Smithsonian. In 2007, and while I was working as a creative consultant to the Photography Initiative, an idea for a new project began to form. In conversation with Smithsonian curators, researchers, and staff, it became increasingly obvious how all around the National Mall—and by extension, all around the world—we use photography for various reasons and to different ends. The more people I met with the clearer it became to me that photography, which most of us think of as a documentary tool is, more importantly, an active agent of change in our culture, work, and daily life.
Given the Photography Initiative’s innovative website and its role in facilitating the digitization of images across the Smithsonian, we created an online project—click! photography changes everything —to explore the medium’s utility, power, and reach. Working closely with Merry, Effie Kapsalis, Susannah Wells, and Catherine Shteynberg, I made lists of people we hoped to engage and whose inclusion would bridge a broad range of experiences and perspectives. While many project participants were affiliated with the Smithsonian, we reached out beyond the Smithsonian to, for example, artists; experts in the media, merchandizing, and medicine; photographic and digital innovators; celebrities and public figures; and students and teachers. We targeted people who study photography’s role in culture and everyday lives, as well as those who rely heavily on photographic imaging in their specific work, but are seldom asked to talk about when or why or how of what they do.
Each project participant was asked to consider how photography transformed their personal life or areas of professional interest. The interdisciplinary stories they told and the images they’ve shared—on the website, and now in the just-published book version of the project, Photography Changes Everything (Aperture/Smithsonian, 2012)—reveal that photography, far from being a shared language, is complex and subject to rules, specific criteria, and expectations that vary from one context and field to another. And if we tend to think of photographs as rear-view mirrors, the reality, as this project proves, is that photography aggressively moves us forward and in that process, changes what we see and want, where we go, what we do, who we are, and what we remember .
We never imagined, when we started exploring photographic images in Smithsonian collections, that we’d end up creating yet another archive, one filled with provocative, informative, and entertaining stories about photography itself. But we did. And now, with its online presence and in its new print version, the project is reaching audiences and triggering conversations we couldn’t have anticipated a few years back. A standing-room-only launch event for Photography Changes Everything was held in Los Angeles in June. Come this fall, a Washington, DC special event planned for September 12 and additional events in New York are yet to be announced. We’ll keep you posted on details and hope to see you at one or another!
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.
Recently I found a box in a file cabinet in the Smithsonian Photographic Services (SPS) cold vault labeled “nitrate.” Nitrocellulose was used as the first flexible film base and was replaced by acetate, or safety film, in the mid-1950’s. This may not seem like much of a red flag, but we tend to label this kind of material like this: Or this: Because nitrate is highly combustible. It doesn’t need oxygen to burn and will even continue to burn when under water. That whole flammable part makes it pretty much unsustainable and well, kind of dangerous, but we archivists do like challenges and heading off disasters. We took the opportunity to educate our interns about nitrocellulose and tested the negatives in our conservation lab to confirm that the contents of the box were indeed nitrate film. Many of the negatives in the box had taken on a discolored hue and a brittle consistency. For the most part, the images were still readable and we were able to take steps to ensure proper care and housing. There were a few instances where the negatives had cracked into pieces beyond recognition of the original image content. Towards the bottom of the box we found some nitrate film that had actually melted onto pieces of broken glass plate negatives. What were broken glass plate negatives doing in a box of nitrate? Wish I could tell you, but I am glad they were. This response might seem contrary to how I should be reacting to collection material being in such a degraded state, but I immediately recognized a new raison d’être for these objects. The textures, layers, and colors generated by the fusion of film to glass resonated with me and I mentioned this experience to a friend who, being a fellow fan of the beauty of decay, wanted to shoot close ups of this phenomenon. The results, shown below, have given these objects new stories to tell and have equipped us with new lenses through which to view our content. We are in the business of providing content and we have the opportunity, if not the responsibility, to use that content to learn, to educate, and to imagine. And when I say “we,” I do not mean archivists; I really do mean all of us. Marvin’s recent post about artist Christian Boltanski, Beating Hearts, illustrates instances of archival material driving inspiration and it’s wonderful to see this kind of content taken to a new level. We, as archivists can tell you what it is and where it came from, but I encourage our audience to articulate what it could be. The example used in this post of nitrocellulose film melted onto glass is atypical of the contents we more generally make available for exploration and imagination. Check out other creative efforts on Flickr Commons:
In the past week, a series of six more images from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray team were uploaded to the Flickr Commons. Incidentally, they are all images of supernovas and black holes. Visualizing black holes is a challenge (at least for me) as the term conjures up images in my own head of silent, black infinity. But luckily for us (and as you can see from the slideshow above), the new images are a Technicolor delight of swirled colors.
Kim Kowal Arcand, the Chandra X-ray Observatory’s Multimedia Specialist, wrote to me about the images:
“In more than a decade of operation, the Chandra X-ray Observatory has transformed our view of the high-energy universe with its ability to make exquisite X-ray images of star clusters, supernova remnants, galactic eruptions, and collisions between clusters of galaxies. Chandra has probed the geometry of space-time around black holes, traced the dispersal of calcium and other elements by supernovas, and revealed that whirling neutron stars only twelve miles in diameter can generate streams of high-energy particles that extend for light years. Chandra has found cosmic generators millions of times more powerful than neutron stars – rapidly spinning, supergiant black holes in the centers of galaxies. There, energy from the rotation of the black hole and surrounding gas is converted into powerful jets and winds that can influence the destiny of an entire galaxy.”
Whoa . . . Go check out the destiny of a galaxy in the Chandra X-ray Observatory set on the Flickr Commons.
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!
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