The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Photojournalism
- New to the Flickr Commons: Stockholm Transport Museum [via Susannah Wells].
- Also, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art has released 285 images from 1930s and 40s from the Federal Art Project’s Photographic Division to Wikimedia Commons.
- Some incredible, fantastical images from Niels Klim's journey under the ground, by 18th century Norwegian-Danish author, Ludvig Holberg over at BibliOdyssey (Halloween costume ideas are a bonus…).
- Have you been keeping up with our Archives Month blogathon? So many great posts up this week, including the Archives’ own Kira Cherrix writing about troubleshooting as she digitizes field notes for the Field Book Project, and the Smithsonian Institution Libraries on some great safari images in their collections.
- A profile of Everett Ellin, the man who pushed art museums to embrace computers.
- Focused—a project bringing a group photojournalists toward a common goal: “to rely more on our senses than technology” while taking photographs in a digital age [via Mitch Toda, SIA].
- An interesting video by the National Archives’ Preservation Lab in St. Louis reveals how they deal with objects damaged by fire, mold, and the ravages of time to make records more easily accessible to the public:
“Preservation Lab at the National Archives, St. Louis,” Courtesy of the National Archives YouTube Channel.
Late in July, LENS, a New York Times blog that focuses on images and issues photographic, posted an interesting story by James Estrin. Magnum Photos, the legendary co-operative photo agency founded after World War II by photographers including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson, announced that to boost the visibility (and paid use) of the hundreds of thousands of images it has already placed online, it would look for 50 volunteer taggers to help key word its online images. Teaming up with Tagasauris, a company that specializes in tagging archival pictures, the goal was to enlist photo-enthusiasts, whose tagging suggestions would then be reviewed by three-to-five participants before they were posted.
What might be likened to an unpaid digital-archive-internship, promises to give participants opportunities to study older photos that were seldom seen, as well as new images by Magnum photographers as they enter the archive. For those interested in the work of photojournalists as diverse as Eve Arnold or Susan Meiselas, Elliott Erwitt or Tim Hetherington, and who want to support Magnum’s mission at time when professional photojournalism is being challenged both by the shrinking number of paying media venues and the rise of citizen journalism it seemed like a win-win opportunity.
Early in August, another article, this one in Britain’s Independent reported more on the story, and from a slightly different angle. Crowd-sourcing, as Alice-Azania Jarvis wrote, is not special, in itself. But what Magnum has done is introduce incentives like “leader board-style status-enhancers to virtual rewards” to make the process fun, competitive, and popular. Todd Carter, a Tagasaurus executive, suspects that if the tagging process were truly “gamified,” millions of people might want to sign up. (The gaming-tagging concept, as Effie Kapsalis of Smithsonian Institution Archives just pointed out to me, was first tested out by Google in 2006.) One potential consequence of that would be that many gamers might lack the historical and/or photographic expertise to comment on much beyond the more obvious subject matter the images depict. As it turns out, less than two weeks after the Times piece ran, thousands of people have already contacted Magnum, which—with its 295,000 Twitter followers and 135,000 Facebook fans—plans to stick to its goal of finding 50 knowledgeable volunteers, and now looks like it will have plenty of potential taggers to choose from.
Magnum is not alone in its outreach efforts to sign up the public to help in archival work. The Smithsonian currently has a public collection tagging initiative in the works.
- The Smithsonian’s Around the Mall blog has an interview with our Smithsonian Historian, Pam Henson, about the famous, real-life Smokey the Bear (you can also read our earlier post on the subject).
- Need to get a 17th century recipe for almond cakes? The Wellcome Library’s online Recipe Manuscripts is the place for you. This is a really fun collection to browse [via Marcel Chotowski LaFollette].
- The New York Times on battling digital rot in a world that generates “over 1.8 zettabytes of digital information a year.”
- The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology is launching “Recovering Voices,” a project drawing on their rich video collections to help preserve endangered languages and indigenous knowledge.
- Digitization is at the top of the minds of archives and individuals these days. Future Proof blog highlights some of the common problems that often come up with digitization projects, and gives lots of advice about how to avoid them.
- In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hired freelance photographers to capture images underlining environmental problems, EPA activities, and everyday life in that era. This iconic project is now available on the National Archives’ Flickr stream [via Prison Photography].
Some sample Documerica photos from the "DOCUMERICA Favorites" set on the US National Archives Flickr Stream.
Note: This blog post borrows heavily from the article, “Shooting Fireworks: Capture the Spectacle,” from former Smithsonian employee, Jim Wallace (originally published on the Smithsonian staff photographer’s website in 1995), with valuable additions from Ken Rahaim.
The 4th of July is coming up next week, promising picnics, gatherings, and of course, fireworks. You may have noticed that the magic of fireworks is very challenging to capture on camera. Smithsonian photographers would agree, but they also have years of experience capturing fireworks at inaugurations, special events, and at the 4th of July celebration on the National Mall. Follow their expert advice below to ensure that you take the best possible photographs at your celebration, whether you’re in your backyard or in DC.
Choose a good viewing position.
Ken Rahaim’s first suggestion is to anticipate where the fireworks show will occur and scout your shooting position in advance. Smithsonian photographer Eric Long adds that it is desirable to "have something in the photo that's identifiable." That might be an iconic building or landmark in your hometown, or as is often the case on the Mall, one or more of the National monuments. "Having water in the foreground to reflect the fireworks also works well," Long continues.
Aside from the National Mall itself, other suggested vantage points of fireworks on the Mall include across the Potomac River near the Iwo Jima Memorial—a view, photographer Nick Parrella explains, where you can line up “the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument and Capitol in the shot”; and the Arlington side of the Potomac, which photographer Jeff Tinsley notes, one can use the river and numerous small boats anchored there as an effective foreground.
Think about framing.
Ken Rahaim advises that providing scale for firework bursts when framing your image, is important: “While bursts in isolation are beautiful, adding some scale will enhance the bursts by emphasizing their size.” Rahaim continues, “Another technique used to add scale to your composition is to include silhouettes of onlookers in the foreground. This has the added benefit of providing a human element to your photographs which help to engage the viewers of your image.”
Photographing fireworks from an unexpected location or vantage point can also make for a unique photo. Smithsonian photographer Alan Hart has had the enviable position of photographing fireworks from the top of the tower at the Smithsonian Castle Building: "It put me just high enough to get a perfect silhouette of the Washington Monument in front of the spectacular bursts." While not everyone can shoot photos from these kinds of locations, anyone can think about ways to get a more creative shot.
Have all your equipment ready to go.
Start with a fully charged battery, freshly formatted memory card, and plenty of film if you’re shooting with a film camera. Rahaim suggests filling your pockets with additional fully charged batteries and formatted memory cards, since “You won’t have any time to search for these once the show begins.”
Bring a small flashlight.
Rahaim explains, “It’ll come in hand should you need to dig into your camera bag or read any of the un-illuminated button labels on your camera.”
Set your initial camera settings before the show begins.
Settings such as shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and focal point, should be decided before you start taking photographs. Ken Rahaim says, “Naturally, during the show you can make adjustments to shutter speed but you want your baseline settings in place well before the show starts.”
Find out which way the wind is blowing and get upwind.
This practical suggestion comes from photographer Richard Strauss, who notes: "Fireworks create smoke and if the wind blows it towards your position it not only blocks the shot but makes it uncomfortable to shoot. From the right position you can use the smoke to your advantage. As the fireworks program builds, the smoke reflects light and can help define the shot."
Use a tripod.
It may seem obvious, but using a tripod helps you keep the camera steady and obtain sharper photos; it allows you to take a photo without having to look through the viewfinder; and it can aid careful composition of a photograph. Ken Rahaim adds: “Once you’ve chosen your position, compose and frame your image securing your camera in place with the tripod. You might have to make minor adjustments to your framing once the show begins but that should only take a few seconds.”
The kind of camera you use really doesn't matter as long as you can manually control it.
Whether you’re using an old-fashioned film camera or a digital camera, manual control is imperative since auto-focusing is dependent on contrast, which is very difficult to achieve at night in low light.
Most of the time, if your camera is even able to achieve auto-focus, by the time you shoot the burst you were anticipating will have passed its peak. So, Rahaim suggests setting your digital camera to manual focus and doing one of two things: 1) pre-focus on an object within the area of the fireworks burst or 2) set your focus to infinity.
Almost any lens, wide-angle or telephoto, that gives the desired perspective will work, and since on film cameras the exposures will usually be at f/8 or f/11, a fast lens isn't necessary.
Shutter speed is the most influential variable in capturing fireworks.
Ken Rahaim notes that with digital cameras, the shutter speed will be relatively long when photographing fireworks. In his photos here, the shutter speed was between 3 and 4 seconds. He explains, “The combination of your camera’s shutter speed & the duration of the burst’s illumination will determine the ‘length’ of the fireworks’ ‘trails’ that are recorded on your sensor.” Long shutter speeds also have the disadvantage of introducing motion blur into the image. Rahaim explains that a camera tripod will go a long way to counteract this issue, but additionally, “if you have a remote shutter trigger it will further reduce blur inducing camera vibration by allowing you to keep your hands off the camera.”
With film cameras, most Smithsonian photographers start with a basic exposure of f/8 and 4-seconds for ISO-64 film, and bracket their exposures during the fireworks show. Other tips from photographers Richard Strauss, Jeff Tinsley, and Alan Hart include: opening the lens just before a burst is launched to capture the fiery streak climbing skyward, as well as the burst itself; setting the shutter speed to "B" (Bulb) and using a locking cable release for timed exposures; locking the shutter open while covering the lens with a black cardboard card, and uncovering the lens periodically to accumulate bursts; and waiting until the sky goes dark again before closing the shutter.
Some final considerations for those of you using digital cameras versus old-fashioned film?
If you’re shooting with a digital camera, ISO is the second most important variable.
Ken Rahaim elaborates: “For digital cameras, higher ISO settings introduce noise. Digital noise is exacerbated in shadow areas and, not surprisingly, in low light, nighttime photography. Keeping your ISO setting as low as possible will help alleviate the noise issue.” His photos her, for example, were shot at ISO settings of 50 to 200 (depending on shutter speed).
With a digital camera, shoot as much as possible!
Ken Rahaim suggests, “Although you should try to anticipate the bursts and gauge their rhythm, don’t be shy about taking a lot of pictures. This is the digital age after all, and you’re not paying for film anymore. That said, consider your time spent reviewing all your images before switching to motordrive mode!”
But if you are shooting with old-fashioned film… think about the type of (and how much!) film you use.
Most Smithsonian photographers recommend using a slower speed (ISO 64 or 100) slide film. Some, like Talman, prefer color negative film because, "it has greater exposure latitude and contrast control." Preferences for daylight vs. tungsten film also vary: some feel that tungsten can be better for the artificial light produced by fireworks; but others feel that daylight film can have warmer saturation, truer color, and be better for areas where there are mixed sources of light. And save some of that film for the grand finale since, as Eric Long observes "The programs usually get better as they progress,” and the best shots are typically at the end of the show.
Thank you to the Smithsonian photographers for their expert advice, and everyone have a safe and happy Fourth of July, full of masterful photographs!
This is the first in a series of "murder mystery" posts about a 1930s Smithsonian scientific expedition, and is based on records in the Smithsonian Institution Archives' collections. One of my first projects as a new employee at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in 2006 was to help prepare our collections for the move from the Arts and Industries Building to our new home at Capital Gallery. We were sitting around a table, putting the contents of the 189 boxes of Record Unit 7231, the Waldo Schmitt papers, in acid-free folders. Schmitt, an expert in marine invertebrates, worked at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History from 1915-1977. He was an engaging diarist and correspondent, monumental record-keeper, and packrat who left us a massive amount of material documenting his 60-plus year career. The volunteers I was working with started turning up some startling items amid the field reports and correspondence—pulp magazines from the 1930s, newspaper clippings with headlines straight out of the era of yellow journalism, and gruesome photos of dead bodies. They certainly piqued my imagination, so I thought the opportunity to blog for THE BIGGER PICTURE was a perfect excuse to go back to the Schmitt papers and try to piece together the story that those intriguing archival fragments told. And what a story it turns out to be! It has everything you’d expect (and wouldn’t expect!) from a Smithsonian expedition to tropical seas—exotic islands, fascinating wild fauna, stout-hearted scientists, a love triangle, and, very likely, murder. The Hancock- Pacific Galapagos Expedition of 1934 was one of three financed and led by Captain Allan Hancock—oil and railroad magnate, pilot, ship builder/captain, and agriculturalist—one of those Renaissance Man/tycoons so typical of the early decades of the 20th century. He financed the first non-stop flight across the Pacific, donated the La Brea Tar Pits to Los Angeles, and toured cross-country as a cellist with his own string ensemble. Waldo Schmitt contributed his expertise in crustacea to three of Hancock’s expeditions, and later accompanied President Franklin Roosevelt on a cruise to the Galapagos. Schmitt headed to the Galapagos once again with Hancock’s 1934 expedition, but according to his journal, the trip got off to a rocky start. On the first day at sea, there was the discovery of a stowaway on board—a young man who had been pestering the crew in California with requests to be part of the expedition. Fortunately, they were able to send him home via a passing fishing boat. [pullquote]Today all had short shorts on . . . broad-brimmed beach or sailor hats . . . They wear sandals and paint their toenails a bright red . . . I told them I didn’t like it. Waldo Schmitt diary, Smithsonian Institution Archives[/pullquote] Then, the women of the expedition emerged on deck dressed like chorines in a Busby Berkely musical. What if the stowaway was actually a reporter in disguise? Schmitt hoped that it would be kept out of the papers—he could just see the headlines reading: "Smithsonian cuties on voyage to nudist isle." In his diary, he noted: "Today all had short shorts on . . . broad-brimmed beach or sailor hats . . . They wear sandals and paint their toenails a bright red . . . I told them I didn’t like it." The headlines on the expedition’s departure from California had been bad enough. The fact that they were on a voyage to collect specimens for the Smithsonian and the San Diego Zoo had been buried in the last paragraphs! As far as the press and public were concerned, their voyage had one purpose—the identification of two mysterious dead bodies spotted by fishing boats on deserted Marchena Island. On their 1933 Galapagos trip, the Hancock expedition had made acquaintance with some oddly assorted German Utopian colonists on Charles Island (also called Floreana Island). Charles Island’s denizens had already provided the type of story that Depression-era news media ate up and exaggerated all out of proportion—nudism! crackpots! canoodling in the tropics! The colonists themselves hadn’t helped matters any by contributing their own articles to the American press.
To be continued…
In our next installment: The unidentified bodies were, in all probability, two of the Charles Island colonists. Who would the Velero find— the happily married couple, the philosopher/dentist and his paramour, or Baronness Eloise Bosquet de Wagner: the scandalous “Empress of the Galapagos Islands” and one of her retinue?