Two weeks ago the Smithsonian held its first “Photography Summit.” Smithsonian administrators, curators, archivists, collection managers, conservators, and photographers (and probably a few other categories of staff were represented as well) gathered to hear presentations by conservators from Harvard University, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library who have completed, or in the case of NYPL just embarked upon, surveys of their image collections. The idea is to start planning for a Smithsonian-wide survey of our photography collections. This does not mean that we will open every drawer or count every photo, but when completed, the survey (a carefully prepared series of questions whose answers will be processed through a computer program) promises to give the Smithsonian for the first time a picture of the size, shape, and health of its vast photography holdings. To date, when asked, “How many photographs does the Smithsonian have,” the answer, depending on the occasion and the person doing the asking, varies: millions; lots; more than enough. For nearly as long as the Smithsonian has existed the effort to keep track of its ever-growing photography collections has been a thankless, and (though no one wants to admit it) impossible task. Photography, beloved handmaiden of scientists, historians, and artists alike, is just so wonderfully easy to produce and reproduce. As the commentaries of SPI’s click! photography changes everything project suggests, since its invention in the mid-19th century, photography has been basic to every discipline. Other institutions like Harvard University, The Library of Congress, and The New York Public Library have turned to modern technologies to help solve the “what” and “how many” crisis of photography. Like the Smithsonian, they have accumulated millions of photographs, and also like the Smithsonian the photographic collections are spread out in a variety of disciplinary repositories housed in many departments, often separated by different buildings and bureaucratic hierarchies. Whether catalogued as science, history, or art, the thing all photographs share is the demands of conservation and preservation. And each of these institutions had the same challenge of finding out the size and shape of vast photographic collections. Using the same survey tool that we’re planning on at the Smithsonian, they were able to achieve a compilation and assessment of information from many collections and create a useful database for planning for the future care of their collections. The blind men may see the proverbial elephant at last. And as pointed out by Melissa Banta, Program Officer for Photographs at the Weissman Preservation Center, Harvard University Library, the survey also helped identify areas of interconnection between collections with possibilities for programming and curatorial projects; it contributed to a new way of thinking about photos as primary sources; and it allowed researchers to know where to go to find images. At Harvard, the survey was an impetus to put together an online directory of all the photos across the institution with links to digitized materials within each collection along with an alphabetical list of repositories. The words “money and time” are a reasonable response, especially in these challenging economic times, to any institution contemplating this kind of effort. But without a plan of action, neither of those items can be obtained. And the survey may give that plan to us. Of course the added complication is that today, most photographs are born digital. Strategies for storing and using those images are being worked on. But for now this survey is using contemporary methods for learning about historic photographs. Surveying collections is not really about answering the “how many,” but rather giving focus to the large enterprise of photography and realizing how significant the medium is to the work of any large multi-disciplinary institution. It will result in better and safer storage for photographs and greater access to the knowledge they contain.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.