In a three-part conversation event moderated by Paul Lowe, curators Alison Nordström and Hilary Roberts draw upon their vast professional experience to consider how archives are created, what is involved in maintaining them for future generations, and issues associated with their access and exploitation.
Session 1: Creating the Archive
- What is an archive (including the difference between a collection and an archive)?
- Who creates an archive? What is its purpose? What should be included (proactive vs passive collecting)?
- How should it be organized? What is the cost of creating an archive? What is its value?
- What are the essential decisions when creating an archive?
TRANSCRIPT, Session 1
Paul: This is the first of three sessions so do please try and join us because obviously, the each session is going to have a different theme, and a different set of things we’ll be discussing, taking you through sort of creating archives, how to create them, what are they for, what are the risks, what are the benefits, how much they cost, that’s kind of thing in this first session. And then in the next session…we’ll be looking more at actual preserving the archive, and stages of archive preservation and management, and how to organize things like the photographer and representatives and working with collections and so on. And then finally, in the last session…looking more at accessing the archive and legacy and who uses archives and how, and what are the futures of the archives in this digital age. There’ll be quite a bit of overlap, though, I think between the sessions, of course, as usual with these sessions, I’ll be moderating the questions, you are free to type questions into the Q&A box. If they’re pertinent to what we’re discussing at the time, I’ll ask them in the course of the talk but otherwise, we’ll keep them to the end, and we’ll share them with Allison and Hillary at the end. I’m not going to do too much of an introduction here because they’re gonna kind of self-introduce each other in conversation but without further ado, welcome. We’ve got 135 people in the room with us, which is absolutely amazing. Welcome to everybody. And we I’m sure we’ve got a lot more on Facebook, too. So handing over really to Allison and Hillary and looking forward for really interesting and valuable insights for both of you. Thank you very much.
Allison: Thank you, Paul. Allison, it’s lovely to see you. We’re on separate sides of the Atlantic, but we’ve known each other for well, at least 20 years, during which time, roles have evolved, our work has expanded progressed, tell me a little bit about how you first got into curatorship?
Hillary: Well, it strikes me that, although we’ve ended up at very much the same place as people interested in all kinds of photography, but also photography and photographs in large numbers, that you’ve worked for one institution for your entire career, though, in very different capacities and with different parts of that collection. Whereas I have worked in pretty much every kind of public institution that holds photographs. And I was thinking about that this morning that every one of them thought they had an archive, every one of them use the word archive. I started in a 19th century ethnographic archive, actually, at the Harvard Museum that I’m affiliated with today. My research of for my dissertation, took me to archives all over the world and then at George Eastman House, we had a collection that included a number of archives but we call the whole thing the archive, even though it wasn’t. And I think you also oversee a collection that includes archives.
Hillary: Yes, well, when I first joined the Imperial War Museum, I was an archivist, trained in text based records rather than photography, because at that point, the science of managing a photographic archive had was not really on the on the list of what a qualified archivist was expected to do when I joined the Imperial War Museum, it had an accumulation of archives and collections from official sources, private individuals, and professional photographers. And I was recruited because at that point in time, they recognized for the first time that what Imperial War Museum is collections, which at that point were 5 million images comprised, was, in fact, an archive and they thought, alright, well, we need an archivist to deal with this. Since then, I’ve evolved from being an archivist to collections manager, which is also a science in itself and from there, I became head curator, which again is a slightly different role and then finally, moved on to a research lead role. So during that time, although it’s been under the umbrella of a single organization, the roles have changed and evolved constantly. The collections have changed and evolved constantly. And the museum is a very different animal to what it was 40 years ago. And that’s true, I think of all institutions which engage with photography, the understanding of what is meant by an archive, what do you understand by that?
Allison: Well, I tend to be really a utilitarian here so that if people call it an archive and assume that it is an archive, and think about it as an archive, I’m not going to quibble. I think the difference between a collection and an archive is often intention but I’m fascinated to hear that you were trained in text archives, and then moved to photographic archives, because I think there are some really core differences. And many of the text archives we deal with, were begun with the intention of being an archive, we are a village and we’re going to keep an archive of all of the birth certificates. Whereas most photographic archives were not established as that kind of informational archive, they were started at something else.
Hillary: Often picture libraries.
Allison: Yes, often a picture library. And I think we will talk about that at some in some depth. But or they were, I mean, I’m thinking of the Lewis Hine archive at Eastman House. That was actually everything that was left in his studio after his death. So it was, it included, rejected prints, floor sweepings, negatives, some other people’s work, which was not identified, that was very problematic. But photo archives are often something else and I think, the 40 year thing that you’re talking about how photographic archives have changed, has to do with this art thing.
Hillary: It’s partly that, yes.
Allison: A collection of photographs, which was made, you know, to document the construction of the Empire State Building becomes something very different when it’s moved into an art museum. And if it’s moved into a museum of history, or a museum of science, or a museum of anthropology, the objects remain the same, but the, their meaning and the meaning of their archive, and also, the way they’re organized, is going to change radically, because photographs take their meaning from where you find them.
Hillary: Indeed, I think in terms of an archive there is there are definitions. So an archive, in the technical sense is an accumulation of information. Usually in its first iteration, so what you might call original now, one of the challenges for photographs, of course, that what is an original in terms of photography, photographs, whether they are analog, or digital, have many forms, and many of those forms are produced almost concurrently with actually opening the shutter. So this is challenging, this was one of the things that actually brought you know, really attracted me to photography in the first instance, I had to actually learn on the job. There was no textbook at that point in time which dealt with how you create an archive, what are your responsibilities, what are the challenges, you literally had to worry about as you go along. The libraries, which were produced in wartime were definitely of the situation. But their importance as potential historic information which needed to be managed and preserved and accessibility maintained. Which is, you know, sort of ticking all the boxes for what an archive is, was recognized very early on, the question was really how? What was their status? How important were they? How valuable were they, alongside the text record?
Allison: And, the notion of value. I mean, I promised not to talk about Foucault very much today. But, you know, Foucault very importantly, talked about an archive as a set of relationships, as a kind of organization that imposes meaning on the objects. And it’s worth noting that, I mean, the very word archive, which seems to go back to the 16th, or 17th century, means both a place where things are stored, and the things themselves. But that, you know, the word archive has its semantic roots, along with words like monarchy, and hierarchy, that it’s always been to some extent about power, and that structure,
Hillary: And structure.
Allison: About power and structure. While we know that no archive is complete, that an archive is kind of an aspirational ideal but archives have authority, the decision, this goes in the archive, and this gets discarded, accrues a huge amount of significance, especially over time, when the archive becomes the only collection we have from 19th century Thailand. It controls our understanding and our knowledge, and that does have relevance even to individual photographers that are thinking about how their own collection might become institutionalized.
Hillary: I mean, the transition to digital technology brought the word archive for individual photography was very much to the forefront, because it was the term was co-opted by many of the database systems and other technological systems involved. You have to archive your digital files. There is a difference between what we understand as an archive in terms of historical record and accumulation, and what is understood by the technical term archiving files but the benefits of this evolution has been that photographers have become far more aware today than they were really in the 1990s up till that point. That unless they are proactive, and think ahead, in terms of what that how they manage their work, it isn’t going to survive.
Allison: This is an interesting distinction, because I mean, even in the years that I was at Eastman House, which was the arts, I would get phone calls at least twice a week, from people concerned about their room full of stuff. And the difference between a digital archive and a roomful of stuff is that the digital archive requires some degree of organization, even at the beginning, whereas the room full of stuff, I mean, people could literally open the door and put some more stuff in and shut the door again.
Hillary: If you put a set of prints or negatives in a box on a shelf, in fairly stable conditions, you can be reasonably confident if you open the door 30 years later, it will still be there. But if you adopt that practice with digital photography, which has no physical presence, in my practical experience, the average is about three years. Is the lifespan of a piece of technology, a computer or hard drive, whatever that might be. So the other elements of this is actually retrieval, being able to find the work the project the assignment, you are creating, file labeling and metadata has moved from being a catalogers responsibility to being very firmly the photographer’s responsibility. If the photographer doesn’t actually fill the metadata in key word its enumerated and keep an eye on its survivability, that work can be lost. And, you know, there are many examples, I can tell you have really important archives, which thanks to a server outage, hot weather, you know, some kind of electronic disaster have been lost to posterity because they haven’t been backed up,
Allison: Though, with paper archives, archives of things, we need to remember always that the archives we’re working with are the ones that weren’t in a building that burned down, that didn’t go to the dumpster, the fact that they were saved, and they often were not saved, because they were the most important. They were saved by chance and, you know, again, with the roomful of stuff, moving it from somebody’s attic to an institution, I mean, I’m really aware of only one place the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona, that makes an effort to collect everything, when they bring in artists archive into the collection. They collect negatives, and contact sheets, and laundry lists and business papers. They work subjectively, with the artist if the artist is still living, to determine what are all of the things in this room full of stuff that will inform your career and that is an exceptional institution, most places don’t want your negatives.
Hillary: Well, this is where the paths of documentary photography, which is photography, of witness, state, witness testimony, evidence, their historical record and the fine art photography diverge. The experience of art collections where you’re talking about finished prints, and where the negative is only a preliminary step to that journey is very different to documentary archives, where everything revolves around the ability to contextualize the image and substantiate not only its validity, but the information that it contains. So, I can give you an example of when the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was ongoing in the United Kingdom, this was an investigation into what happened in Northern Ireland in 1972. Very one of the longest running public inquiries in Britain to this day. We had lawyers for all sides involved, examining not only the prints, but the negatives, the copy negatives, the documentation, and the catalogs that accompany those things. And actually, in one or two cases, the photographic equipment that was used to generate it to see whether the two matched up. In another example, the relief of concentration camps in the Second World War, trying to work out gaps in the record about who took these photographs, whether they were Germans or British or whoever. It came down to looking at the negatives themselves, and cross matching that with all the ephemera that was around, but ultimately sitting down and saying this photographer had this camera. And he was using it at that point in the day. Do the negatives, and the prints and the photographs all match up?
Allison: There’s no question that negatives have lots of value in all different kinds of photographic categories. But I think it’s this is definitely the point in the conversation to assert that photographs are slippery, little things and one of the wonderful things about archives is that you may find archives and the mechanical reproduction of photographs, you may find the same photograph in a historical museum, an anthropology museum and an art museum and the context that every archive provides will be quite different. And I mean, Hine is a really good example of the photographs at Eastman House, for the most part, have been treated as though they are art and again, the archive is all over the place. The same images appear in the archive, a real archive of the Russell Sage Foundation at the New York Public Library, where the photographs are contextualized with the original publications, in the early part of the 20th century, and we respond to the photographs very differently.
Hillary: We do. Tim Hetherington’s archive that I was involved with is an example of crossover. And so Don McCullin’s photographs as well. To talk about Don, very briefly, he is absolutely clear that he regards himself as a photographer. And I am deeply grateful to him for actually being that clear on that point, his photographs I have exhibited within the IWM. And very recently, in fact, I think, hopefully, again, soon, The Tate is going to exhibit his photographs too. And the fascinating thing for me has been to witness at firsthand how the audience’s the visitors to those shows have responded, there’s an area of overlap, but there is also an area of differentiation. And you know, we will get into this in later sessions, but the curators role is in some ways to be aware of all these different potentials, the photographer can produce a body of work, which is intended for an immediate audience, which they are well aware of. They may 10 years, 20 years down the line, have another look at that same body of work and see things that they haven’t seen before.
Allison: Or, a different curator may see things that has not have not been seen before.
Hillary: This is exactly it that quite often in discussion with photographers themselves, I tell them what I am seeing. And it is certainly a real, you can sort of see a eureka lightbulb moment going on there. Oh, I never thought of that one. And so yeah, you’re absolutely right. Photography, photographs are slippery. The archives in terms of what should be in them, you need to sort of think broadly, and try and think ahead to try and put yourself in the position of somebody 50 – 100 years down the line, what kind of questions might they be asking of your archive?
Allison: It’s the great challenge, isn’t it? And I think this question of who creates an archive is, is really key to our understanding. And I guess the additional question to that is, who creates the archive? And why? We’ve talked a lot between ourselves about the picture archive, which you know, begins as a tool for doing business that those rooms full of file drawers, whether at Magnum or at Black Star. It was simply the easiest way to move an image from one place to another, the easiest thing to do was put it in an envelope and mail it to New York, and, or wherever and they had a very specific function. After the digital turn, when we had an easier way or a better way or a faster way to move an image from an office to a newspaper. Those no longer useful files full of photographs became something else. And in some cases, they became things that went to the dump. Yeah. And in other cases they became they were elevated, in a way. I noticed that there was a change in vocabulary with Magnum, where it was called the picture library until it was no longer useful and actually until it was for sale, when it became the Magnum archive, and I think we need to pay attention to how a collection came to be what it is, because that tells us what’s not there, and about the organization as well.
Hillary: Well, that is part of archive science and that is what I was taught 40 years ago or more that you need to actually understand the creator and the creator can be an individual or an organization, an institution of business, but you need to actually delve into that before you make any decisions about…
Allison: And as much as possible, then you need to preserve that. You need to preserve the original organization.
Hillary: Yes, business records, the lot.
Allison: Even though the original organization becomes a record of how something was used in the past and of course, one of the great things about digital technology, is that an object or a reference to an object can exist in multiple categories, multiple digital file drawers.
Hillary: I mean, in recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to occasionally visit a family studio archive. So this is a local family photographic business in Lewis, in Sussex, in southeast England. This business was the main photography business of the town, from the 1850s to the present day, it’s one of the longest running family owned businesses in photography that I know of. And they have everything, absolutely everything, and they not only have their negatives, and their equipment, which and even the backdrops to their studio portraits but they also have the business records, which are crucial, because you can tell exactly who commissioned the photograph, on what day..
Allison: How many copies they wanted.
Hillary: Indeed, I mean, I’ve got a photo of it, I can share my screen a little bit and just bring an example.
Allison: You know, I’ve been working with a similar, I guess, it’s an archive, collection in Toronto, where the current owner of the archive is the third generation photographer within the Portuguese Canadian community of Toronto. And not only does he have every first communion photograph made within that community in 100 years, but he still has the props. He has the illuminated Jesus statue that you stood next to, and the names and addresses of everyone who bought a picture.
Hillary: I’m trying to share my screen right now. I don’t know, can you can see that?
Allison: It says, there you are. Yes, you can see it. Yes.
Hillary: This is this is the Reeves archive in Sussex, which goes back to 1850. On the shelves, you can see the boxes of glass plates from the 19th century. On the right, you can see business records and in the foreground, you can see the ledgers and without those ledgers, all the rest is useless. And so many studio archives of the past have lost that sense of those essential books which enable us to..
Allison: Yes, I would I would speak of the 19th century ethnographic collections that I’ve worked in a lot. We call them archives but they are accumulations and what is lost exactly is that context. In general. We even if we know who made the photograph, we don’t know how the photograph got from where it was made to where we found it in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And it’s only recently that we’re seeing that kind of work being done with a few specialized objects from within that collection.
Hillary: I mean, all of this has the potential to end perhaps on the naughty subject of the value of the archive. The archive has, I think, two potential art values may be more, but one of that is the record knowledge. So, you know, the significance of the knowledge and information that it contains, or the artist’s vision, the skill, there off and then the other is the naughty one of financial value.
Allison: And flipside of financial value is, people need to understand how expensive it is to bring even the most brilliantly organized archives into an institutional collection.
Hillary: It really, really is. In my institution, we cannot accept, we have to make a case, like every institution does, we have to make a case for acquisition of an archive. And there is a very detailed evaluation process, which involves a lot of due diligence about ownership. And we have to have an independent appraised value of that collection. And that actually determines who, what level of seniority within the museum is actually allowed to sign off on the decision to acquire. The other part of that assessment process are, we need to estimate the potential costs to the institution of actually taking that archive into our care. We as a body will not take on an archive or a collection, which we don’t have the resources to look after properly.
Allison: That would not be ethical.
Hillary: It would not be ethical; professional standards, dictate it. The legend is that sort of archives are given to his museums, where they disappear into the stores and not seen for decades until some researcher happens upon them. That is not actually how it works. It really isn’t. As soon as something enters the museum’s collection, these are all UK national standards. Its existence has to be immediately documented so that the public know that we have it and from then on, there’s a body of work to be done in actually making it accessible. With Tim Hetherington archive, that archive, the Tim Hetherington trust did a marvelous job in terms of creating an inventory of it, and working with the museum, in every, every detail, they took their time about their decisions, they didn’t rush this. And they understood what the pressures on the institution can be, we had to accommodate relationships which had been established. So I mean, this is an example where arrangements with Tim’s gallerist had to be respected, and his film work with, you know, people with like Sebastian Junger, and so forth, had to be respected. So it wasn’t simply a matter of saying, wow, yes, wonderful, we would love it. There were all these processes to go through. The most complicated one for Tim’s archive was to get a proper appraisal and valuation because value after value, felt they weren’t equipped, they didn’t have the skills to do it.
Allison: And I will say that it’s fairly common knowledge in the States that there are a couple of appraisers who and again, the complication is that slippery transition from photojournalism to art, because art is where the value is. Now, of course, our tax laws are different in the States, and there can be a huge financial advantage from a tax standpoint, to donating an archive to a public institution. So you want it, you know, appraised at the highest possible value, even though it’s not remotely realistic. If you were to dump a million photographs on the market at once, you would not get what the appraisers say they are worth but I think the significance to our audience of what happened with Tim’s archive is that it’s a very typical archive of a working photojournalist. And the decisions that were made to get it ready to move into an institution, were one of the things that made it more attractive to you. If they had said, we’ve got a roomful of stuff sorted out, you might have been you might have said we don’t have the staff, we don’t have the labor to do that.
Hillary: No, I mean, this process with that particular archive took years, and what I would say to any professional photographers, or the representatives who are listening in, is that life happens, you need to plan now for your archive, regardless of what point your career might be at. If nothing else, you need to make a will, and keep it up to date. Putting into some kind of legal form, what you wish to happen, who should be responsible. I work obviously, with photographers who engage with conflict. Conflict is a very, very risky business, things happen. We all know that Paul, was in Bosnia, and Gary has covered conflict around the world. So you have to be prepared for this. And you have to be aware that your next of kin, if they are expected to take it on, have to have the wherewithal to be able to deal with it.
Allison: But it’s certainly not limited to photographers who engage in conflict. I actually was reading an estate planning document just the other day, the title of which was in case you get hit by a bus. And so the point is, that making a will is very important, and thinking about, I mean, you probably shouldn’t leave those decisions to your mother. You should, if it’s possible, make some of the decisions ahead of time and put them in writing and put them in your will. And that is something I think we’ll be talking about more in sessions two and three about what decisions an individual photographer ought to make. But remembering and again, I will just say this as coldly as possible to the heirs and widows, that you’re not sitting on a goldmine, you’re sitting on something that will probably not make you the money that it costs to maintain the archive. And I think that’s one of the biggest misapprehensions about rooms full of stuff that we deal with.
Hillary: And many photographers will be aware of the cost of commercial storage, will have exhibitions, in storage, all of this. And the cost of maintaining an archive is enormous. The cost of actually creating an inventory from scratch needs to be factored in. When you’re talking about cataloging individual images, and then when you’re taking a large archive in, what you’re what you have to do is find a way of making sure that the cataloguing is merged with the rest of the museum’s cataloguing standards. And also is upgraded to make sure that it fits. It fits the need for retrieval. We worked out that the cost of digitization of analog archives you it cost you, the cost of the budget 25% of the budget was on actually scanning or digitizing the image 75% went into the documentation. It was a hugely expensive process.
Allison: Our basic number was $600 per photograph, to bring it into the archive, counting, I mean, it would be scanned, sometimes it would be photographed, it would be cataloged, it would be physically stored, and that was only for the process of bringing it into the collection. The ongoing costs of climate controlled storage, the salary of the collections manager or the archivist, ongoing work, you know, conservation usually came later, again, for financial reasons. But that might make sense, with a few remarkable objects for the kind of art side of the collection at Eastman House. You can’t even think about those numbers when you’re talking about a collection. And the problem with photographs is there’s too damn many of them.
Hillary: Exactly. So the Imperial War Museum has 11 million images, that’s not artifacts. So we have obviously negatives, prints, slides, you name it, all these multiple formats. The analog collection, you would at least triple that number. The costs of doing that are extraordinary. We are in the process of a multimillion pound digitization project to make sure that people can research these collections online. We have worked our way through first world war collections, we are doing very well on our second world war collections, we are looking at our late 20th century collections, which covers everything from the Cold War era, Vietnam, right up to the Balkans and up to the point of the turn of the century. And I can’t begin to tell you, the numbers are extraordinary. And yet, those are all physical archives, we are equally having to look through millions of TIFFs, JPEGs, you know, all these sorts of various photographers files, which are on hard drives. I hate discs, DVDs and CDs, they are my personal version of hell. And, you know, it is a huge, huge undertaking and it has to be said that when you have a photographers archive, one of the starting points is what should be preserved.
Allison: Right and yet, because of our confusion between images and objects, especially now that we’ve entered the digital worlds preserved as what, preserved how, I mean, I must just tell you that, you know, Eastman House was a very early adapter to digital storage because we had access to Kodak stuff. We still have stuff on laser discs, do you remember them? They’re the size of pizzas, and completely accessible until the player breaks.
Allison: And then, lost.
Hillary: And there you have the sort of situation, which is that many photographers today are storing their material in the cloud. And you are therefore dependent on another enterprise as to how those images are stored, whether they are stored in full size, resolution, what is kept and what is preserved. So and the other element with all of this in archives, which are not closely managed is that you can lose track of who took the photograph, where it originated from, and if you’re dealing with documentary photography, that.. I will never forget a certain year in Afghanistan 2006, when I had 50 different claimants for a single image, all of which there was no way to tell who actually took it. And there’s an example which has just been in the British news today about a photograph which was released under the Creative Commons license with the results, but and correctly
Allison: Oh, and someone stole it and was presenting their own work.
Hillary: Exactly. So, you know, this is an example of what can happen in the digital environment. It’s all argument for photographers doing their level best to take care of their archives.
Allison: Yeah. One of my bête noire is, again, with the Hine archive, you know, the guy swapped prints with every member of the photo league, many of whom took pictures that were very similar in style and subject to Hine’s photographs. And because often what we had from Hine was a work print, or, I mean, he didn’t sign them. Some of them were rubber stamped, if they’d gone out to a publication, but otherwise, they were not. And so, you know, my advice to photographers now who are thinking about organizing their material in any way, is please separate other people’s work from your work. And, but it’s amazing how rarely that seems to happen. Because the photographer knows, she knows who took the photograph. And she’s not necessarily thinking about some poor future archivists, someone who’s trying to use these, either his art or information.
Hillary: I think, you know, my experience of photographers, and this is not necessarily the case with fine art photographers, but it is certainly the case that the pressure of the job means that you live from day to day, how do you carve out the time and the willpower to pay attention to your archive? And that I think, is the biggest single problem, I have. We the photographers, by instinct from vocation, our creators, and the elements that come with managing an archive are not automatically part of a photographer’s skill set.
Allison: No, you’re right, exactly and nor should they be. But photographers do organize their archives in certain ways, because they want to use them too, they want to be able to find that photograph they took in Bosnia 10 years ago. But, um, so probably, at least having in mind how their practical system of organization might be received. You know, again, learning what institution you might be trying to get your archive into thinking about what they will do, informing yourself about what the process is when a personal collection gets subsumed into an institutional collection, may make it easier for the photographer to make decisions.
Hillary: Having conversations with the right sort of people. People who are doing this kind of work is I think, very, very helpful. I know that in my day to day, I have a lot of these kinds of conversations. And every so often, I sort of, say to the photographer who I haven’t seen maybe for 5-10 years, how are you? Have you made your well yet?
Allison: Yeah, I’m also thinking about two photographers whom I won’t name both significant photojournalists, both of whom offered archives or personal collections of stuff to an institution that I worked for. And one of them, neither was digitized, but one of them every negative ever printed, was organized in chronological order, and there was a cross referenced subject based database. And the numbering system was the second photograph was number two and the first photograph was number one. The other archive was in a four different states, under a bed in New Jersey, in the back of a car, and I mean, it’s obvious which archives they were both the same size but it’s obvious which archive we felt we could take on. And, I do think that basic things like making a will, I would also like to suggest that photographers at least take a look at the PI, The Photograph Information Record. If you Google that it comes up. It’s available now in about 30 languages. And it’s a questionnaire, again, generally used by art museums for soliciting information from the maker of an image, when their photograph goes into the museum. Now this is obviously better for singular purchases rather than purchase or acquisition of a roomful of stuff. But it asks things like, you gave us the image framed, do you consider the frame part of the work? May we reframe it for exhibitions? It becomes a way for the photographer’s knowledge about that particular object to become part of the permanent record. And more and more institutions are using the PIR but I asked photographers to familiarize themselves with it, because it may raise responsibilities. I remember presenting the PIR to a group of students and one hostile student said, our job is to make the stuff, your job is to figure out all of this stuff. And I said, well, no. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for us to take care of your work when you no longer can or no longer want to.
Hillary: Indeed. I mean, I don’t want the whole business of managing a photographer’s archive to sound too intimidating things like creating a basic inventory or a system whereby material is organized, documented and backed up is not that difficult, it’s not rocket science. It’s just about being.. disciplined.
Allison: It’s methodical and time consuming though.
Hillary: Exactly. But you don’t need to have a master’s degree in the whole thing to actually do the basics and the sensible things it’s about doing it making it part of the day to day activity. And I know that most professional photographers have a very good sense of that, because their business depends on it.
Allison: Yes, and I think next session in two weeks, when we start to talk about preservation and organization, that there are ways that a sort of basic, practical system of organization can be transferred, along with objects or digital files to an institution.
Hillary: Yeah, and there are a lot of people out there able to give advice and guidance. I think we’ve been talking for quite a while and I wondered whether Paul, we have any questions that people..
Paul: Yeah, we do have a lot of questions and fascinating discussion between you. And I think I’m going to try to keep the questions sort of along the themes we’ve been talking about today. There are some here that I think we can save for the future talks. But one very practical one is I think it’s interesting that lots of photography courses out there training people to be photographers, but very few training people to work with photography. So a couple of people were asking you for advice if they actually want to become a photo archivist or a curator, are there any particular courses? Hillary, you mentioned your training? What’s the best way to get into the business of being an archivist? It sounds like there’s plenty of work out there for people to do this.
Allison: It is a rare academic discipline, especially where photographs are involved. You know, there may be an hour’s discussion of archives in a curatorial course. I do want to point out because I think it’s the only one in the world, the photographic preservation and collections management program at Ryerson University in Toronto, it was associated for 10 years, it is no longer with the archive at George Eastman House which I thought was ideal because there was plenty of raw material for people to sink their hands and now it’s sort of focuses on the Blackstar collection, which is held in Toronto at Ryerson, but I’m not aware of it’s a full blown two years or master’s degree, I’m not aware of any other similar programs elsewhere. Are you, Hillary?
Hillary: Archive science has evolved considerably. Many of the courses, which are postgraduate courses are designed for.. well, they’re led by the text base medium, with photographs and film, a part of that. But also these days, what you really need are is instruction on digital archiving, and digital asset management as it’s known, because you find yourself often, you know, as a still camera, professional camera these days can shoot video clips alongside photographs are many professional photographers are asked to provide both. And so I mean, we have to be prepared for people who are specializing in management of photography collections to be to cross over into other media and find techniques to actually manage all of them. So if you want to become a professional archivist, there are courses available, just as there are certain courses available in museum skills and curatorial skills. But at the moment, I’m not aware of any regular running courses and people correct me if I’m wrong for photographers, in archive management, it’s that that I think, is potentially a gap. There are many courses which teach photography, management of the photographer’s archive as part of those courses, I hope is being taught. But I am not aware, Paul, you might be of whether that is a standard element of these courses?
Paul: Well, we certainly do, in the courses we teach, we talk about backing up and you know, the idea, there’s only two kinds of hard drives, one that’s failed, and one that’s going to fail and making sure that you’ve got your work backed up in multiple places, and it’s accessible. And the key thing about images, they can only be very valuable if you can find them. And I think there’s sort of basic principles that we talked about, but it’s certainly not, you know, something we do deal with but it’s not. It’s not a separate course of its own. We had a couple of interesting questions around what you might call the politics of the archive. And there are two sort of relate to each other one from Nick Schoenfeld, about when you’re working with a collection of images of objects with the community that might not think of itself as an archive in the first place. You know, what kind of questions is that raise? In other words, kind of imposing an archival vision, I guess, on somebody else’s material. And you’re the one from Veronica Terra, which is very relevant, I think about the current issues about decolonizing. You know, the world and obviously decolonizing, the archive, she mentions a project done with the Maasai tribe and the living culture project, and how those decisions handled between the archivist, the photographer, the subjects? Do you have some examples of kind of collaborative pricing power to sort of tell their own stories, because there’s a lot of, you know, all kinds of considered to be neutral. And I think what you’re coming across very clearly is that they’re not they’re very, they’re created things that are dynamic.
Allison: I would like to point to the wonderful book about the xili daguerreotypes that has just been produced at Harvard, a really good example of photographs that are the photographs of enslaved people that are extremely difficult to look at their exhibition, even their ownership is disputed at this point. And I think that’s true for a tremendous number of the 19th century ethnographic archives that, that I’ve looked at. Almost all of them today are questionable in some way. They can be decolonized. But it means bringing in multiple voices, and it requires a degree of humility on the part of the anthropologist and I think that’s happening, I think we’re seeing these collections being treated very differently. But I know I remember 20-25 years ago, I was involved in one of the first major exhibitions of work from this kind of archives it was called The Stolen Shadow, which already tells you something about the way it’s being interpreted. But when those when that show happened, one of the radical newspapers in Berlin said, these are racist photographs, the act of looking at these photographs is racist, and this collection should be destroyed. I get very nervous when we talk about destroying this kind of collection, because there’s lots of important historical information,
Hillary: How can you learn? I mean, I would say that when you are working, or when I am working with either an individual or an institution whose archive is potentially coming to IWM, the first key point is to build a dialogue and a relationship, you have to understand where the photographer or the institution is coming from yourself and they have to understand you. That relationship does not begin or end with the point of transfer, you maintain it after the archive has physically been transferred. But it is a case of humility, and a sense of responsibility. I’ve always said that a curator, is a bridge between a creator and an audience. And, you know, that applies when you are trying to work out how to manage the future of an archive. There are times when in my area, the creators want more to be preserved than is practical, necessary, realistic; many, many duplicates, for example, the future of exhibition prints, perhaps. There are times when they don’t want let go. Or there are times when they wish to shape the contents. And you cannot be you cannot impose hard and fast rules on those situations. Because, you know, each one is complex. So it’s a dialogue. I listen really, really hard and I make notes, and that forms part of the permanent record, you know, how those decisions will make. If I am reviewing an archive for acquisition by which I tend to sort of think in terms of an aircraft hangar full of photography, that’s just my life. But if I am reviewing it, I talk through what I call category a, category b, and category c things. So category a is no question this material must be preserved. We know it no debate, category c, the opposite. We both agree this material is ephemeral, and doesn’t need to be preserved. Category b is where you have a real discussion and that is where your relationship stands the test of the project. If it’s a good relationship, then you know, you will get to an agreed decision and you will record those decisions. So you listen to the case for and the case against. And with very, very few exceptions. That has always worked for me. Going on to the decolonizing the image thing, there is an impression that once an archival arrives in an institution that it is cast in stone. We all know, we both know that that’s not the case. In my case. You know, when it first arrive, arrives, it’s all you can literally do is hold up a mirror to it. Ten years on, it’s acquired a further partner more understanding further on every you know, pretty much every decade. Every archive I’ve worked with has acquired value, things have been questioned and so forth. At the moment, in response to what Veronica is asking, my Institution is actively engaged in a project to look at the text data, which accompanies our photographs of the Second World War, the terminology that was used, and what this is doing is not trying to sense some materials. Because I think if you are, if you cross out offensive terms, you are in danger of deleting history. I mean, how can we understand what was offensive if we don’t know what those terms originally were, but contextualizing those terms and explaining how opinions have changed is very much what we are looking at, at the moment.
Allison: I think there’s a huge difference between the text that accompanies an object in an archive collection, and how that text is used to generate a label, for example, in an exhibition, and I would not hesitate to change language in an exhibition, although I would explain that I had done so though, as we’ve seen that, we’ve seen that a lot. I mean, I just, I kind of want to just wrap up by saying, again, no archive is complete, the research is never done. And the research includes ongoing conversation with the potential audience in the future, for that material. And then finally, it seems to me to be a sort of peculiar conceit of our time, to think that we can save everything. And we don’t need to, I mean, I don’t believe that every newspaper morgue, in the world needs to be preserved. I think that some of them do and it may not even matter very much which ones are saved, you save the ones you can but you know, there are too many photographs. And those kinds of decisions made humbly and carefully, both by the maker of the objects and the curator who is institutionalizing them..
Hillary: With the rational being documented.
Allison: Being transparent about all of those decisions and allows for another curator, or audience member or researcher one hundred years from now, to say, oh, because they made the decision on this basis, we know that a, b, and c, will not be there and that is very useful, transparency is key.
Hillary: Transparency is key and creating a record of the process is key. In my line of work, if you don’t do that, you give birth to 101 conspiracy theories about censorship of the record, for example. So even if material is, it’s actually very complicated and expensive to dispose of photographs from an archive permanently. The processes you need to go through to actually get approval for that, and actually do it is underestimated.
Allison: There have been some instances in the states where, because of controversial deaccessions of particular objects by a public institution, some very broad brushstroke rules about the deaccessioning have been made into law by legislators with no understanding of how collections work. And basically, once something has come into the building, and has been treated like an object of value, whether you eventually decide to accession it or not, it’s considered part of your permanent collection.
Hillary: Yeah, it’s a legal status. And the other thing is that many policies are made without taking the specific needs of photographs into account.
Allison: Exactly. And photographs, as we all know as everyone who’s called in to listen to us knows, photographs are different from other kinds of objects. And I think our second session is going to address some of the specific things about how a collection of photographs is different from a collection of teaspoons and we have to be thinking about that.
Hillary: Any more questions for?
Paul: We’ve got we’ve got lots but we’re running out of time, but quite a lot of them are written by referring more about the practicalities of setting archives up which I think we’ll be dealing with in a more the future talk. It was just two clarifications, Allison, the what was the name of the Harvard University publication on the xili daguerreotype?
Allison: Oh, it’s called to make our own way in.. to make their own way in the world, the xili daguerreotypes. That’s not quite right but that’s enough for you to find it.
Paul: And you know, what was the name of the program at Ryerson, I think?
Allison: Photographic preservation and collections management, Ryerson University in Toronto.
Paul: Wonderful. Thank you very much. Well, that was an amazing session, we got fantastic feedback from people really interesting and engaging. And then we really covered the kind of philosophical questions around archives as well as some practical ones. I’m really looking forward to how the conversation is going to continue. We had almost 250 people at the high point, which is absolutely fantastic. And really fascinating and wonderful just to sit and listen to you to discuss these things so eloquently, and so intelligently and really excited to look forward to the next session. So thank you very much, Hillary, Allison, thank you very much to VII Interactive, Jana for hosting this. As people know, there’s got a lot of these talks going on with different themes, different photographers, please do look at the VII Interactive site for more information on that. Otherwise, we will see you hopefully, I’ll have you back for the second of these sessions and if you’re listening on the archive, please come and join the session live next time. So thank you very much, everybody. Thanks for Jana, for hosting us today. I really want to say switch off.
Hillary: Thank you very much.