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The Initiative
August 25, 2006


Included on the Smithsonian Photography Initiative Web site: Terry Evans, Fairy Ring #2, Fent's Prairie, 1979, Ektacolor print, 15 x 15 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Consolidated Natural Gas Company Foundation, 1989.38.5

After the New York Public Library opened its Digital Gallery, I lost hours—maybe days—of my life to browsing. The news that the Smithsonian Institution has launched the Smithsonian Photography Initiative is very welcome indeed (even if it means I'm looking forward to some late nights in front of the laptop).

As Jacqueline Trescott notes in her Washington Post article, SPI is a virtual meta-institution, developed in lieu of a photography museum:

For about 30 years, the idea of a physical institution, a Center for Photography, was debated. But that faded as fundraising became an uphill battle and the Internet provided new possibilities. "In the early part of the 21st century, this seemed like a lot of work, to create a building. We decided to embrace fully the idea of the virtual world," [SPI director Merry] Foresta says. Museums were beginning to digitize their collections, and many curators and scientists were very protective of their materials.

"Quickly we realized we would have a war on our hands if we were loading up the trucks and saying, 'Bring your photographs.' It would have destroyed what is unique about the Smithsonian," Foresta says.

The simple truth about photography is that, as a relatively late-breaking art medium, it's always been subject to pre-existing categories. Photography is a plastic art and belongs in art museums; photographs are historical documents that belong in historical institutions. Often a single photograph has myriad uses. The advantage, then, of a digital meta-collection is not merely that it skirts the inevitable turf battles, but that it allows users to organize the same body of photographic work from many perspectives.

New media technology also allows for interactivity that would have been impossible even a few years ago. If you visit sites like Flickr and Del.icio.us, you're already familiar with applications for sharing images and ideas about them.  SPI features a bookmarking function called "Enter the Frame" where users can view groups of images associated with other users' keyword searches. For example, one search string this morning reads "snakes, self-portrait, 1884, standing, man, circle, women, 1880s, 1890s, glass." Clicking on "self-portrait" brings up a pair of photographs by Nikki S. Lee, including Hispanic Project No. 2. You can drag and drop the image into a bookmark dock called "My Sequences," which allows you to record your visit and then lets others see what you've found.

One simple aspect of the site that's useful: the exhibitions calendar shows all the photographic exhibitions (real and online) on view across the Smithsonian Institution.


Posted by Kriston on August 25, 2006 in Museums & Technology


Comments

As a photoblogger, I find this a welcome addition to the resources SI provides.

Photography as an art, as a historical reference, and as an extension of us as people is taking an entirely different turn using the technology we have today. A simple snapshot can turn into something completely different from the original image.

Another great resource is http://photoblogs.org

Stepping outside of aesthetic concerns for moment, one of the many photographic worries of family genealogists is that a massive treasure trove of photographic history specific to individual families faces, ironically, future extinction because of the inherent nature of digital applications.

Traditionally in the past family photographs (physical objects) were passed down from generation to generation (organized and identified, or not) as a collection. The Family Photograph Album holds an important place in American culture. These albums frequently contain a genealogical history of a family that spans generations. Many of these Family Photograph Albums (including albums I've inherited from members of my family) are often researched, indexed and reassembled into archival albums by a family genealogist before being donated to a county or state museum in an effort to build a broader body of historical knowledge about a family's place or contribution to local history.

We are now, of course, deep into the digital realm. Family photographic history is now being relocated from the traditional Family Photograph Album to computer hard drives and online sites like Flickr. There are many concerns about this practice:

1.) Many people find the "sharing" of digital images to be, quite frankly, not as easy as it's held out to be. In my own family, for example, I have several family members who don't own, or have any desire to own, a computer. Sharing my Flickr images of a family gathering is a moot point with them. They want to see the "real" thing, that is a printed image.

2.) Many of us genealogists are very much aware of the fact that the traditional Family Photograph Album has morphed (digitally) into an online or CD album. I can personally relate that the older generations among my family members are almost resistant to the idea of sitting down before a computer and viewing these images. There's no real sense of immediacy to some with these digital images, as there has historically been with a Family Photograph Album that rests upon a bookcase, an object that one can leisurely pull from the self and enjoy viewing with family members over a cup of coffee. The idea that -and, yes, I realize it's a romantic view of life on my part - family members have long gathered around the table during a holiday, for example, to share photographs with each other is often not the reality within the digital context. The sense is among some genealogists (including myself) that digitized family photographic history is simply less engaging than physical photographs.

3.) There is also a real concern among genealogists that the digital photographic history of many families is actually, in some ways, more susceptible to being lost than that of physical photographs. Again, I can personally relate that very few of my family members who shoot digital photographs actually print their photographs. Most of their digital images are stored, again, either on hard drives, CDs or online. The concern is that mass volumes of family photographic history may very well be lost through simply being abandoned. For example, what happens to all of the family photographs on a paid Flickr account if the family member who paid for the account doesn't renew their Flickr subscription? What if a computer hard drive becomes corrupted and all the images saved on it are lost? What if a CD containing thousands of images of a family is simply lost?

Of course, any physical object like a Family Photograph Album is susceptible to being lost, destroyed or even stolen. In my own family a very historic collection of images dating from the Civil War was lost in a house fire in the mid-1970s in Mississippi. Fortunately, a family genealogist had the foresight before the fire to have made copies of these historic photographs.

Again, I admit to having an idealized and overly romantic view about this subject, and certainly recognize that. I will say, however, that I really do seem to sense less concern among my family members for the future safety of their digital images than for the historic Family Photograph Albums that are ultimately destined (at least mine are) for museum collections. I can honestly report that during our family gatherings, at least, that there always seems to be more interest in viewing the physical photographs held in our respective collections, than in watching endless slideshows of online digital images.

What I hope is that today’s young digital photographers will recognize the long-term historic significance of their photographs and endeavor to preserve, identify and index their collections for future generations to enjoy. Young photographers should think about how important that seemingly insignificant photograph they take today will be to their descendents 100 years from now. I think about how fortunate I am to have reproductions of the original image of my great-great grandfather taken just before the Battle of Atlanta because past generations of my family thought enough about this image to preserve it to the best of their abilities.

It is also my hope that a major national project will be undertaken one day to assimilate the widest possible database searchable collection of online digital images pertaining to family history. I think the Smithsonian Institution should head-up such a project. America needs to be concerned about preserving the incredible wealth of these invaluable digital images (as well as physical prints) that is growing exponentially every day.

As for the aesthetic view on this matter, I can't help but wonder: Would Ansel Adams have gone digital?!

But, then again, I’m asking this question as a devoted film-based photographer who’s already confronted that question and made the reluctant decision to cross the line into the digital realm.

Great added value: photography as a real art and a pilar for and from history. Summarizing, SPI = just great :)

Wow James, that was like an article unto itself. To your final thought; why wouldn't Adams have gone digital? Holding oneself back from any sort of technological advancement is just silly.

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