The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
In a Smithsonian Archive Minute
To judge from a walk I just took across the Smithsonian Mall, visitors to our Nation’s capitol are doing nothing but taking photographs. It is no longer news that most people are taking photographs using their cell phones. With the emergence of digital technology, the process of making, seeing, and distributing photographic images has never been so easy. Years ago Polaroid laid claim to the idea of “instant” photography: click the shutter and seconds later out popped a print, and minutes later an image appeared. But now the speed of taking and seeing has been superseded by the thrill of sending. Around the Mall, the repeated sight of visiting high school students clustered around one another’s cell phones seemed to me like a signal for “photo just taken.” But surrounded by the solid museums of the Smithsonian, I couldn’t help but wonder at the prospects for saving images. Photos can be taken by the thousands by phones and cameras, easily downloaded and sorted, but are they? Prompted by the ideas Sam Yanes shared in his click! commentary about the cultural effects of “instant” photography during the era of Polaroid technology, I’m wondering how do digital technologies, and the instant taking, looking, and sending of images, alter our relationship to saved experience, not only the stuff of memory but of history? Like most institutions, the Smithsonian is hard at work digitizing its photography collections and making those collections available to online audiences, and developing web services so that online visitors can search and access digital assets held within the Smithsonian’s major library, archive, and museum systems. But we might also consider the ways in which the traditional photographic print represents the past in a realm of experience that is quite different—more substantial?—than the digital realm. The majority of photographs are commonplace and some last long enough to become part of the archive, and thus part of history. What gets digitized, when, and why are ongoing questions being asked and answered everyday by the professionals who staff the archives. How, I wonder, will our instant making, taking, access, and use of images re-calibrate the archive? Is there such a thing as an “instant archive” made and re-made with the needs and wants of each new user? The image of an encyclopedic repository of exchangeable images was articulated most profoundly by Oliver Wendell Homes when he suggested that photography was about collecting: “Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing . . and that’s all we want of it.” Or, in a digitized world, is it?
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.