The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Too Many to Count
One of the things people often want to know about photography at the Smithsonian is, “How many photographs do you have?” with the quick follow-up, “Have you counted all of them?” No one knows for certain, but statistical sampling suggests that there are over fifteen million pictures, in the form of prints, negatives, and digital files. These photographs span the broadest range of subject matters and disciplines, from fish photos to portraits, and from digital images of cosmic black holes to masterpieces of American art. But no, no one has counted them all. And it would be a task without end. By the time all the photographs were counted there would likely be another fifteen million waiting to be counted. And with more than a billion photographs made a year by all manner of devices from cameras to cell phones, the prospects don’t seem likely that we will ever catch up.
But isn’t that the nature of photography? From the outset, photography has traded in volume. Picture upon picture, photographs formed an inventory of our life. “As the bee gathers her sweets for winter,” promised Samuel Morse, inventor and one of the first practitioners of photography in the United States, “we will have rich materials … an exhaustless store for the imagination to feed on.” But in 1840, Morse didn’t imagine that the wonderful promise of more and more images—the “exhaustless store”—would pale in the face of a massive and chaotic accumulation. Now housed in museums and archives, on computer hard drives and servers, as well as the more domestic storage of shoe boxes, albums, and memory sticks, photographs threaten to overwhelm us. Like Walt Disney’s cartoon character, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who tried to substitute magic for enterprise and was almost drowned by his task, our attempt to keep order and provide physical and intellectual access—from copy prints to digitization—only seem to result in the production of more and more images. At the turn of the last century Thomas Smillie, the Smithsonian’s first staff photographer and custodian of photography, tried to bring order to the thousands of photographs that had already been produced by the work of the institution. His archive was made up of glass plate negatives and to consult any of them presumably required not only patience but a good pair of gloves. So, Smillie and his staff set about copying them all, and a collection of record prints was made. These cyanotype prints, easy and inexpensive to make, each with a number that corresponded to its negative, created the Smithsonian’s first image database, and yes, more photographs for us to count today. In the next year the Smithsonian will undertake a more complete survey of its photographic collections than it ever has before. Far from “counting them all,” however, the survey will give the institution a much better sense of the size and shape of its hundreds of specialized collections and archives. This will in turn give those who care for these photographs a sense of how to prioritize the needs of their individual collections. And ultimately this will better guide the institution in creating ways, using new technologies, to give better access to these vast collections. Just like every other museum and archive in the world, the Smithsonian makes, collects, stores, preserves, catalogues, and digitizes photographs every day. Increasingly, as we are able to integrate photographs with other informational systems, visual culture will become less a catch-all phrase for masses of images than a real working term for the future relevance of photography and its prodigious production of images. We’ll keep you posted. And how do you organize your own archive? Records and photographs capturing Thomas Smillie's tenure at the Smithsonian are maintained by the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.