In this event, VII Insider series of conversations 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 exploitation.
Session 3: Accessing the Archive
- How will your photographs outlive you? How will they be seen?
- Who uses archives, why and how? What are the potential benefits?
- How do you balance access and preservation needs?
- How do you fund archives? Are they viable sources of revenue?
- What is the future of archives in the internet age?
TRANSCRIPT: SESSION 3
Paul: So welcome everybody. My name is Paul Lowe, I’m a reader of documentary photography at London College of Communication and I’m also a member of VII and I’m going to be hosting this afternoon or evening or morning, depending where you’re on the world session with Hilary and Alison, the third in this fantastic series of talks about photographers and archives, I’m not gonna say very much, because we’re going to dive straight into it. The only thing is that at the end of the session, I will take some questions from the audience. So feel free to put those into the Q&A box as we go along and I will try and curate those towards the end but as those of you that have been here, before you probably familiar, Alison and Hillary will have a wonderful, fascinating talk discussion between themselves and the last for 40-50 minutes and then we’ll bring some questions in at the end. So without further ado, I’m just going to hand the floor over to Alison and Hilary.
Alison: Hello, good morning from Massachusetts.
Hilary: Good morning from England. Afternoon, actually.
Alison: We recognize that we’ve been sort of tearing through this material, and we’ve covered a tremendous amount. very superficially. And that may be the best we can do. I hope we’ve started some ideas for you that you may investigate further on your own. Today, we’re starting from the assumption, still really thinking from the perspective of institutions. We’re starting from the assumption that some of your material as photographers has made it into an institution, we’ve talked about how that happens. And now we want to talk about the big question is, how will your photographs outlive you? And it seemed to us that the the core questions were, how will people find them? And what will people do with them? And a lot of that is relevant, whether it’s a physical archive, or an archive being accessed in some way through the internet but we are going to talk a bit about the internet at the end. So but the question of, how will people find your photographs? And what can you as the person who’s still caring about these photographs work with an institution to facilitate that? And it’s a great challenge, isn’t it, Hilary?
Hilary: Yes, with photography, it’s a particular challenge, because these days you deal with such large numbers by and large. The question of documentation is something we touched on briefly in a previous session, we started talking about how photographers can help curators by compiling and maintaining an inventory. An inventory is an absolutely invaluable starting point. It’s, it’s indispensable really, isn’t it. But we need more than that, if the world isn’t going to be able to see find us your pictures, and an immense amount of work goes into this kind of operation is never really done. It’s never finished. So these days, museums, for sure, and most archives of any size, have quite significant technology to help us along with that. We call them collection management systems and alongside that is, what we call a digital asset management system, which deals with the born digital files that most people are generating these days. So the question is, how do we move on from the inventory? And, by and large with photographs, we create a collection level record, so a database record which summarizes the collection, which allows us to know that at least the material is here but doesn’t do very much more than summarize at top level, what’s there and then the Rolls Royce, the really expensive part of the job is item by item cataloging. And there is it is crucial at some point that there is a to and fro between the curator and the photographer, about what goes into that. It’s, you know, making sure that you can at least say, who, what, where, when, and maybe why. Keywording is a phrase that will be familiar to everybody, and my experiences that while there’s a degree common ground with keywords, institutions have different ones, and photographers have different ones yet. And so, the question is, how do you integrate all this data to provide a meaningful resource for everyone?
Alison: In a way, the question is, what additional information should the photographer be prepared to give, along with the physical objects or the digital files that go to the institution? And I mean, one of the challenges we had at Eastman House was that for lots of reasons, we were really pioneers in the whole field of digitization. You know, we were in Rochester, and Kodak helped us but it meant that we were really reinventing ourselves every so often and the keywording in particular, was really haphazard at the beginning. I mean, we didn’t even quite understand the need for a sort of thesaurus that would control how the key wording happened. And it seems to me that, I mean, you can’t just import a photographer’s keywording, willy nilly, and integrate it into a system that already exists. So, what information and in what form should the photographer be preparing to give to the institution along prints, or a roomful of stuff?
Hilary: So the maximum possible is what I would say, I was in much the same situation as you when it came to the early stages of digital because the British armed forces started using digital technology, very, very early on for operational reasons and at that point, there was no established lexicon for key wording, there was no place names were spelt in different ways, files were labeled in very many different ways. And so, you know, one of the first things I had to do was not only to talk with my own colleagues within the museum as a whole about our lexicon, but also to talk to external photographers who were generating work for their own operational purposes, whatever those might be, about their lexicon and seeing how we could integrate it. So there was a to and fro and a give and take and I would say that keywording also evolves according to the amount of material you have to deal with. I mean, for example, we have an enormous number of ship portraits, which happened to also have the names of towns and cities, and also have various iterations of that ship down the years. So you could end up with five different versions of the same ship, all of which have the moniker Coventry, which of course there’s a town or a city here in the UK, and there’s Coventrys around the world as well. So how do you as your database builds, build on that? When we take in digital files from photographers, we do take in their metadata, and that is put in the, that is treated as if it were a negative. In other words, it’s a first generation is original and some, you know, for historians and all other sorts of purposes, that can be vitally important, but it could also be an issue because sometimes that information can is not suitable for release into the public domain. The terms might be difficult, or they might have changed or they may be classified people’s names for example, where they live, all these sorts of things. So a photographer’s metadata is really, really important and it should be as accurate and as complete as it possibly can but We do not simply post it online.
Alison: It needs an institutional filter. I mean, it’s something we found was that very often, people were identified by race, if they weren’t white and when we jogged out, we actually outsourced a lot of keywording to India, because it was terribly cheap. But it was kind of great, we found that white people were identified as white people, when the keywording was done by brown people. And in a way, it’s sort of it leveled the playing field but again, this issue of what information we have and the decision about what should be made publicly accessible at various levels. You know, the most obvious one for us was a value of the photograph, that was not public information ever. We felt it was an invitation to theft.
Hilary: And indeed, the details of the donor, the location of the material. So yes, there is I mean, these days, our databases are international standards compliant, we work to a cataloguing system called isad(g). But we have on our when we are documenting a collection of photographs that’s just come in, we have 33 pages, not fields, database fields, but 33 pages of information to fill in and that’s a deal of work. We have a minimum standard and then we have an optional standard, but the whole, the job isn’t finished immediately it if we are constantly adding and refining the data, as more information comes to light.
Alison: Especially with a lot of our 19th century material. We found that over time, as researchers came in and worked with the material, their knowledge, improved our database greatly. And again, you have to be careful with that. But, you know, again, I’m thinking about a living photographer who puts a substantial body of work into an institution, and whose greatest fear is that it will disappear into the storeroom and never be seen again. And obviously, there are ways that the photographer herself can, can promote that and make clear, one of the one of the most successful things we found was saw photographers who made it clear that they were willing to work with graduate students. And, indeed, even a few photographers who were able to say, if you want to work with this material, I can throw a little bit of money your way. And graduate students who are already interested in the subject may be steered towards a field and, you know, once you’re in a footnote, people can find you.
Hilary: I would say more. So many photographers give the details of the institutions which hold examples of their material, which is great but it doesn’t tell you any more than that. And with online catalogs being what they are, I would say, link your database to our database. Keep those links up to date and that means that you can find your material quickly and so can the world.
Alison: Yes, I think, generally artists websites, list the collections in which their work is held, but kind of as a trophy, not as a useful research tool. And it’s just going that that extra link really. Again, it means the the serious collaboration with the institution and in our experience when a photographer says okay, this is great, I’m thrilled that you have this series now or you’ve acquired this archive. What can I do? And that’s a very productive conversation to have at the end of the day. It does come down to these personal relationships,
Hilary: And commitment, I would say because after a photographer who has donated or gifted or we purchased material, life continues to go on. And I have found it really beneficial, particularly with conflict photographers who are very busy for them occasionally, maybe at a 10 year point to review a certain body of work and look at their data. And there is a photographer, Rupert Frere, British photographer who was in Afghanistan 10 years ago. He is doing this at the moment with some of his Afghanistan work and it’s very, very interesting to see him now contextualizing the work and adding more insight to the captions, which at the time, he was very busy, and he could only really write down the minimum, now, he is developing that further providing more of a background story to it. And that’s, for us is so some useful, we constantly strive to have to remain in touch with photographers. The question about usage of photographs. I mean, what I would say, first of all, is that once collections arrive in an institution, and they are documented, and particularly if they are documented online, so that there is a website and people can find the material that collection is in use. And we the question of exhibitions or digital content proliferates from that point. So I don’t think once a collection has been properly catalogued, it is ever not in use.
Alison: But I continue, you know, I’m a dinosaur. So I continue to think about photographs as as real things as objects. And one of the great I mean, I remember the number of times that I’ve been at a studio visit, and you know, someone is smoking in the corner. And we’ve all just had grilled cheese sandwiches and now we’re sort of looking through prints as one does. And at the point where I’m thinking, we want this, the gloves come out. And I’m very aware of the challenges between our preservation in perpetuity responsibilities as an institution and access and sometimes that’s very challenging for photographers to understand that the number of times we get a phone call from someone saying, well, you know, you’ve got the only really good copy of this, this cibachrome, and I can’t make another and my friend who runs a coffee house wants to exhibit it. And we have to say, well, they don’t meet our standards for exhibition. So what about the challenges between access and preservation?
Hilary: It’s walking a tightrope, and it’s a constant process of reassessment. So every year, we are conditioned checking, recording, condition checking, recording, the amount of time a photograph can be on display on a wall varies according to process, format, condition. Certainly 19th century photography is very fragile, but some 20th century photography is actually even more fragile. I’m thinking of some of the 1950s color negs and color prints, for example, you know, those needs really cold storage and displaying them in the original or lending them involves a lot of work and a lot of risk management. So it’s, I mean, it’s really important to understand that the material which is in the care of an institution, that material is the institution’s priority, but without access, what is the point of keeping it? So it is a balance.
Alison: Now with, again, just a practical thing with objects that require cold storage to last. We would always start tried to get two prints and we would have one that would go into cold storage and another that was available for you. I mean, because when it’s in cold storage, you don’t just bring it out and slap it on the table it, you’ve got to acclimate it to bring it out. So we have another set of prints. And very often, I mean, I never had a situation where the photographer did not cooperate, where we would say we don’t want one print we want two, and that way we can, we can observe the color shifts in the one that’s not in cold storage. And the the one that’s now in cold storage is the one that gets loaned and exhibit. It’s not ideal.
Hilary: Well, we’re very lucky. And I mean, we have a similar sort of situation. So in wartime, for example, duplicates, or surrogates were made, almost immediately to avoid loss through air raids, or, you know, say a shell falling in the wrong place, or God help us, a server or a hard drive going wrong. So creating a working surrogate, which is as close to the photographer’s intention as possible, is a key part of what institutions do. The details of the process, and the amount of input that a photographer has had to creating a print varies. So if it’s an art print, that is one level, if it’s a documentary photograph, where the information and maybe the controls and handling that it goes through, that’s another methodology. So you need to be able to recommend.. documentation needs to support that. Our question always to use as is, do you actually need the vintage print here? Do you need the first generation or is your requirement informational? And this can actually result in very interesting debates. An example would be the exhibition I did some years ago on the photography of Cecil Beaton. Now, Cecil Beaton went out to Egypt in the Second World War, and also went out into the North African dessert and he got sounded his camera, the result of which was that quite a significant batch of his negatives from that work, have these dreadful scratches across them. As a result of which, I mean, it was beyond retouching, as a result of which most of those photographs were never seen. Now, in the context of the exhibition, the debate was, can you ethically emulate the photographer’s intention digitally? Does that allow these photographs to be seen? And would they meet with the photographer’s approval? And so, you know, these are interesting debates and decisions. There’s no easy answer to any of that.
Alison: You may remember a very noisy discussion out a gathering we were at, regarding the Inge Morath photographs of Iran with the light leaks. That’s, you know, and she’s she was dead, she was not able to say, yes, go ahead and improve them. And the curator made the decision, then, had she been alive. I mean, she was devastated when she discovered that none of her work was could be published at the time, and he decided that she would be okay with doing it. But the and as you recall that discussion about whether what he had done was okay, completely broke down over national lines. It was really interesting to see who felt what about this, but it raises a really important question. And I’m very aware that this is our last session and we have so much to cover, but how can.. what should a photographer understand about the rights over the material that are given up when something goes into an institution? And what, for example, intellectual property rights, what persists and what rights does a photographer retain when something goes into an institution?
Hilary: Exactly. So the first point to understand is that the accessioning process is one of legal transfer of the property. In other words, the photographer has no further rights in the physical collection or in the digital collection, other than those that have been negotiated with the institution, as part of the terms of handing the material over. Now, most photographers retain their copyright and the challenge there is to obviously respect support that, but also to enable the institution and the great wide world to get the work out there. And so my institution has a licensing operation and we have very hefty terms and conditions about what isn’t able, one of the naughty ones is always about manipulation, cropping colorization, all of these interesting techniques that people are dying to try out on images. So our terms and conditions sort of setup, you know that they’re quite extensive, we keep them under reveal, we check them every few years and update them. And so we do our role is to do our level best to represent the interests of the photographer, the integrity of their work.
Alison: To honor their moral right of authorship.
Hilary: Indeed, indeed, indeed. So for example, orphan works, of which, you know, we have a significant collection, we put an immense amount of research into trying to track down photographers who were never acknowledged at the time that the photograph was taking taken, but just their work was put out there via agencies such as AP or Reuters or something like that. So an awful lot of research goes on into this. The bottom line is that if the terms of usage are too restrictive, then the institution cannot fulfill its responsibility to make the material accessible so you have to again, look at the central ground. And so we would often ask, the institution has full rights to use photographs within its own projects, or for academic nonprofit making projects, we would keep the photographer informed if we can, if there is a email or a contact number, we would keep them informed of projects that might feature their work, because they might have valuable input to that project but we we cannot sort of act as an agency on behalf of the photographer.
Alison: And that actually, I mean, basic rule number one, let us know when you move. Let us know when you get a new email address. I mean, it’s such an obvious thing, but we’ve all spent time trying to chase people down. And I’m concerned about how best to kind of institutionalize what is often a personal relationship between the supervising curator and the photographer. I think I’ve mentioned the photograph information record before, a form that is quite long, that gets filled out when something it’s used more and more in the states anyway, but, you know, one of the questions would be, we acquired this framed, do you consider the frame part of the work? Or, could we reframe it to make it work better in a particular exhibition? There’s no guarantee, but that might be something that I know when I’m when I’m talking to the photographer, but collections are in perpetuity curators are not.
Hilary: Well, these days, these questions need to be asked, we have, we have a template, that 33 pages of that I mentioned, we have a template. And it’s about getting all of those elements recorded and before we can accept a collection in the first place, our acquisitions committee will be looking at that, and saying, well, can we afford to sustain, you know, our commitments in that regard? And so yeah, I mean, we expect to be asked lots of questions by the institutional representative that you are talking to and if they don’t ask those questions, is that the right institution for you?
Alison: Yes but also, again, remembering that if you say, this has to stay framed forever, and the conservators, for example, say we’ve got to get it out of the frame. I mean, you can express your wishes, you can help flesh out the institutional understanding of how you understand the work. But, you know, life is long, and there’s no guarantee that and as you say, and this, again, is very important that I mean, I have often been approached by people who say, well, I’m going to give you this, but I want you to get back in touch and ask me, whether you know, what it can be shown with? What show it can be part of? And my answer is, that’s just not realistic. So we like we love the portfolio, but we won’t take.
Hilary: Yeah, no, that is absolutely it. And also, it’s important to remember that this also pertains to any accompanying text, we preserve that text, for sure but, you know, we can’t sort of guarantee to put it on the wall. And we cannot enforce others to publish it or put it on the wall. And sometimes, you know, that can create problems that you’ve licensed the use of an image, you’ve supplied the text, and then some copy editor has taken a big red pen to absolutely everything, and only a shell remains. So you know, it’s not perfect world in all of this. The point is that we do or should record the photographer’s wishes, as we have agreed them with a photographer, that is a permanent record, which is constantly available, so it’s not dependent on a single relationship. You know, whoever has access to that database record within the institution, if I’m run over by a bus tomorrow, you know, you would be able to pick up and carry on the discussion. And so, you know, this is where documentation, which is an unglamorous but vital part of the job really comes into its own. We also record, I should add, you know, how and when images are used in projects that the museum is taking forward. So you can sort of see its history in terms of public usage within the museum.
Alison: And I do think that eventually, it does come down to trust. Trust in the integrity of an institution that will in fact, outlive all of the individuals involved in a particular and those were questions that that we wrestled with all the time, our our loan committee would have to really think about it does this make sense to us, aside from all of the conservation issues and financial issues and all of that, and, even for reproductions that again, we also had a licensing arm, and we didn’t, we looked for some income from that to support the collection as a whole to support preservation. I remember turning down are actually very easily a request from an advertising firm. that wanted to use one of our Nickolas Muray images of Frida Kahlo. And the advert was for a woman’s facial depilatory and we decided that was in really bad taste, and we just wouldn’t do it, I mean, personal decision but I would like to think that Muray would have agreed with me.
Hilary: I think, you know, each institution will have its own red lines on the subject, in my area, you know, we deal with imagery, which is potentially distressing and traumatic. And we have to be very, very mindful of that, we also have to be very, very mindful of the fact that contemporary photography can impact on an ongoing conflict. So, you know, I mean, the way we handle that kind of material is, you know, sort of triple lock, careful. And that can sometimes restrict what we can what we can say, or whether we can release a photograph. There was an instance, numerous instances throughout my career when I’ve been asked for a period of time, not to commercially license a particular photograph, because it shows an individual who’s been killed and the family is in mourning or hiding, it’s not that we are censoring it, it is just that we are being sensitive to that side of the story. There are other issues, which are really tricky ones, ethical ones so an example is a photographer who was prosecuted for abuse and then jailed, what do you do in those tricky situations? There are no hard and fast rules, that very, very careful discussions.
Alison: We had, actually, from time to time, accepted work with the understanding that it would not, not only not be commercially licensed, but it wouldn’t be exhibited, or even available as an image as an image the in our publicly accessible records for a certain period of time, we often having to do with the the lifespan of the subject, we have acquired some very intimate photographs that both the photographer and the institution felt would be inappropriate, while the people were still living. I know that in Australia, there’s a wonderful sensitivity to the belief by aboriginal people that you should not look at an image of someone who is dead and there are very strong warnings saying, be aware that there are pictures like this in the exhibition don’t come in.
Hilary: Yeah, absolutely. And multiple examples of that kind of experience, the question of whether or not to display distressing images, or difficult images. Intent requires absolute trust, as you mentioned, and honesty. So, for example, I worked some years back with the Memorial Museum at Belsen, the former Belsen concentration camp and with them, they wanted to use our photographs of the relief of the camp, very distressing difficult photographs. But they did an absolutely wonderful job because they wanted absolute integrity. They wanted to avoid any kinds of potential for denial and so we were asked to print the images, including the negatives and any markings. I mean, in some instance wartime images are the negatives are censored. We provided full biographies of the photographers who created them and I think that work is still on display today. But the result of that is that the work is absolutely non-contestable. It cannot be denied or suggested that its manipulated in any way shape or form. And, and, you know, we work with other institutions, the problem with politicizing imagery is a very, very difficult one. And so, you know, again, there are numerous examples where the user and external users wanted to use imagery in support of a political campaign that they are trying to make. We are an apolitical institution. I mean, you know, we must be, although we pay we all operate in a political environment, therefore, is it? You know, where, where do we draw the line there, but we aim to in our projects to be apolitical. And therefore, the use of the institution sanctioning the use of images in a political way, is problematic.
Alison: And I mean, I do have to say that, again, maybe trust is the magic word of this particular session, that our field has real ethics, and we are trained in those ethics, ethics are not laws, ethics are constantly changing, constantly being discussed. When you reach an ethical dilemma, you call your colleagues, and you say, I don’t know, have you ever faced this one before? And what did you do? But it’s something in my experience that our field takes very, very seriously. I mean, there’s a lot of discussion going on, at the moment with my current institution, about who has the rights to display extremely difficult images of enslaved people. And what is the voice of the descendants? What is the the greater responsibility to scholarship and understanding our own ugly histories? And I have watched with admiration and all, the degree to which my colleagues are working really, really hard to do the right thing. And it’s why you know, we’re not, we’re not in a commercial business, we are in public institutions, we’re doing our best work for the common good. And I think that if you can find an institution that you trust to support that approach to the work we do, your material will be in good hands.
Hilary: Yeah, we are, decolonizing the image is a very topical subject for many right now. But for any institution that has a connection with empire and colonialism..
Alison: Which is all the institutions.
Hilary: Absolutely, whether it’s, you know, obvious or behind the scenes, but, you know, we are currently reviewing the language and the tone of voice again, to sort of take into account the fact that some of that many of these photographs are taken from a white Western colonial perspective, people who have the cameras, that’s right, but also trying to bring that perspective into balance, and also up to date.
Alison: And I will say that when we do, for example, change language, I am aware of several institutions that have decided we will no longer use that word. To talk about Chinese laborers, for example, we’ll say Chinese laborers, but we’re going to explain that to the audience. And again, it comes a question of what gets preserved internally within the institution and what gets put out publicly, and those are really, really hard decisions. It’s a really terrifying responsibility. But it’s one that I think curators do take on because that’s part of the job.
Hilary: It is part of the job. And curators listen and they respond because institutions or institutions and photograph collections in particular are enormous. It can sometimes feel like turning an oil tanker around midstream, it takes time. It doesn’t happen, you know, in 24 hours, but the amount of work just for example, that has been going on in British Museums since last summer, and the George Floyd protests, it’s extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary and that in the context of a really difficult, such working situation involving, you know, pandemics, and God knows what, so I think it’s absolutely right to point out our feelings, but also have a little compassion.
Alison: Well, and again, to say, we do understand what we do as a dialogue, we do understand it as a dialogue with the image makers, with the people who consume the images that we care for. And, you know, it’s an imperfect world, and we are imperfect people and, but I think the will is there. And trust in that will is probably key to a happy, ongoing relationship. I’m watching the clock. And I’m seeing lots of lots and lots of Qs in the Q&A section. So I wonder whether Paul wants to help us address those.
Paul: Sure. Just going through the now. Obviously, great feedback, as always wondering question about misattribution, and how do you deal with that next Nick Schofield is asking about a couple of examples he’s come across, where two photographers have been credited with the same image, and was that normal? And if so, you know, how do you or if not, how do you counter that in the research process?
Hilary: Well, first of all, let us know. Second, we will dig into it. I mean, misattribution is actually a form of image manipulation, as well as an accident waiting to happen. So, for example, sort of two sides, two combatants might take the same photograph and attach completely different captions to those photographs to deliberately mislead in support of propaganda. So in those instances, what you actually have to do is provide both of those uses, and make sure that it’s clear. Now, how do you do that in a simple database record? Well, yes, that’s the challenge, because you can overwhelm people with data. But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to data, and names of creators, it is often the case that the records aren’t good enough for you to be able to tell immediately. Which version of a piece of information is correct, but you have to qualify your information accordingly.
Alison: And I’d like to say that, that in my own experience, our greatest difficulty with misattribution, comes from bringing into a dump of a photographer’s archive, and discovering, sometimes long after the fact that, you know, he was merrily swapping prints with other photographers. And they were all in the box where they fit. And they were not identified because the photographer knew what they were. And, I mean, we had a box of photographs that we understood to be Aaron Siskind’s Harlem document photographs. Well, they actually were his and several other people. And, you know, they had just sort of come to us without a great deal of information. So again, I would say that, who’s buzzing?
Hilary: Oh, I think it’s my phone. Sorry.
Alison: I would say that again, at the very beginning when a photographer is working with an institution to move an archive, to move a room full of stuff that anything you can do to clarify. What’s what is going to go to stop misattribution at the beginning.
Hilary: And the same goes particularly with digital. I think I’ve probably mentioned this one before, but I still have nightmares about it. An entire regiment once submitted its personal photographs from a tour of Afghanistan and when you’ve got 300 versions of the same photograph, all claiming to be by that individual, you have a problem. So, yeah, I mean, it comes down to sort of basic organization. And if you are not going to be the one to do it yourself, please do your level best to make that task easier for the ones that do.
Alison: Here, here.
Paul: So Laura Noble has got a question. And then somebody asked about, is there a good guide for keywording and metadata cataloging in advance the photographer could use in advance of approach to confusion? This is something actually that we’re working on, because we’re working on a cataloguing of a set of COVID images. And it seems to me there isn’t an industry standard that you can just turn to there seems to be lots of competing systems, depending on what country you’re in, and so on. But is there a sort of good starting point? I mean, I looked at just looked at one today that has 400,000 different potential terms, which obviously is completely untenable. But any advice on how you might start coming up with a taxonomy for keywording and metadata?
Alison: I think I would, I think I would start by looking at the institution you’re interested in. And thinking about what context your images are going to be in? I mean, I love the fact that an art museum and a history museum might acquire exactly the same image, but would want different information and would do different things with it.
Hilary: Yeah. I mean, who, what, where, when, and why are the bedrock. When it comes to place names, there are some standard ones there. Obviously, if place names change, then you have to find an alternative, we deal with multiple ones, the longer your archive goes on, the more different versions of the place names, you have to deal with. Personal names, well if you’re really stuck, the telephone directory is always a good start but, again, be prepared for changes and aliases.
Alison: And I would say, take a look at the photograph information record. It’s not going to get you to the keywording level, but it’s going to get you thinking about the kinds of information that would be useful to any institution and honestly, that should be an ongoing effort. I mean, one of the things that we like to know is the batch number on the ink cartridge that you’re printing with because very often an industry will change the chemical makeup of the ink. And the only way you can know it is know when that ink was manufactured. And I know that if you don’t note that at the time that you’re using that ink cartridge, you’re never going to have that information.
Hilary: It’s really helpful also to include an indication of genre. So if you’re going for portraiture, landscape, architecture, surprising to say, but moods are very helpful. You know, we have found that people often want something which indicates sorrow, happiness, celebration, that kind of thing. And I mean, you know, if you have Lightroom or the equivalent, and you use it properly, that will be a really, really good start. But there are so many subject variables that only you will know, what are the key keywords that you’ll require.
Alison: I think we’re moving towards an industry standard. And I think that will eventually happen but we’re nowhere near there yet. So, sorry, Laura.
Paul: I think we touched on this a little bit last time, but I think it’s worth revisiting because it may be a different audience. But I think again on keywords, you know, obviously, when you’re working with historical material, and sometimes that word historical is loosely used, because it’s things that are not that old. But how do you ensure that keywords or captions that have been entered that perhaps use a language or terminology that’s no longer in current parlance or acceptable is still preserved? Because, you know, there are certainly instances where caption for picture taken at whatever period ago now in our current reading would be quite problematic. So how do you deal with problems like that?
Alison: We keep the old one, and change it and note when the change was made.
Paul: But for example, in an online database that was searchable. So for example, you know, I mean, that could cause problems, goodness, or How do you? How do you, do you make that original caption text searchable? Or not, for example?
Hilary: This is yes, in brief. So we’re trying different techniques. And this is a work in progress, one of the things we do is to provide a digitized version of the original caption itself, so that there’s absolutely no doubt where it comes from. And then the main database caption would be a modern researched one with cross references to historic terms but the question of offensive text is something that we deal with on a case by case scenario because a database and online databases unmediated, and that gives an enormous amount of potential for misunderstandings, or indeed mischief making. So the short answer is that the original historic data is kept and is accessible. Its source is documented, you know, who generated it as far as we possibly can, and any subsequent information that comes in from an external source is also documented. In other words, this sort this information comes from somebody who was there, or this one comes from an academic historian who spent his life actually dealing with that subject. So that one can, one has some frame of references to the you know, the context of that information, the stuff that goes online is a blend, as far as we’re concerned, we there are so many historic terms that people will not think to actually search under them. So I mean, we have to, we have to bring that information up to date with the original information is also there.
Alison: And again, thinking about the public facing side of this, for example, exhibition wall text, I think it’s extremely useful to let people into the kinds of decisions that a curator is making. So again, my example of replacing a word that many people find offensive today, with the phrase laborer seemed to be the right thing to do but to explain it and to say, this is this is a word they use. This is an attitude they had that we don’t have. I resent the fact that very often, exhibitions are presented as though they are sort of curated by God and fell out of the sky and the only way that they could possibly be, and it’s so much more instructive and useful, and perhaps, empathy and gendering to make clear that the curators are making lots and lots and lots of choices and trying to do the right thing. So being transparent about these changes is entirely appropriate.
Hilary: It is and I think the trend is in favor of making it more so the challenge is to do so in a practical way. I mean, the average caption is what 30 words something like that the average piece of all text 150 at most, something like that. And so we will also be exploring other ways of presenting that information, giving people people the option. But it is absolutely vital. I mean, I had another example a photograph by Ed Steichen, showing a lynching, which he had captioned. And the terms he used were, of course, offensive, deeply offensive, and actually displaying that print with its original caption is really tricky. Because on the one level, it reflects how, you know, these attitudes prevailed. And on another, on another level, it sort of shows.. we need to decide whether that is absolutely critical in this instance. And if it is, then we contextualize it, if it isn’t absolutely critical, if it doesn’t actually help inform, understanding, does it go in? And there’s a to and fro.
Alison: Indeed, I mean, it’s, again, it’s an ongoing process, we’re learning just as our audiences learning, just as our researchers are learning where and the world changes as well. So, but I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule but I think the core value is honesty and transparency. And humility. Humility came up last week, too. And I think that’s pretty important.
Hilary: Absolutely. Remember, the curator is a bridge between the creator and the audience.
Paul: So interesting question from Lola Cantor, about work that’s been sold because obviously, a lot of photographers sell prints to collectors, those collectors then donate their collections to museums or whatever, what rights if any allowed, a photographer doesn’t own the print, what rights they have, over whatever, whatever information might be put with the print. So in other words should be, does the institution have a responsibility to contact photographers to give further information on the works?
Alison: We do try. I mean, definitely. And we would expect to get some information from the collector. How the collector, how the work came to the collector is also an important part of the story. But we we do try and we would indeed, work with the living photographer, again, all of this gets really complicated. When we’re not contacting the photographer, we’re contacting a photographer’s widow or heir and that that becomes a question of, how well informed did the photographer leave that legacy?
Hilary: Yeah, absolutely. There is a process called due diligence, which we must undertake in every instance. And part of that process is, first of all, does the donor actually have the right to donate this material? They have to sign a legal document to say that they do, if proves that they have misled us, then you know, the action could be taken. We would never assume that possession of a physical artifact. It’s with it the intellectual property rights, those don’t transfer, unless there is a specific document with the owner, which as she says that the photographer has.
Alison: We have a situation of where a collector had bought a photograph at auction and donated it to us. We contacted the photographer for more information and we’re told I don’t print it that way anymore. I want to give you a new print. And I want you to destroy the old print and we said no. We said it’s part of the historical record. We’ll take the new print, thank you very much, but we’re not going to destroy the old print and that was further complicated by extremely rigid and not helpful rules about deaccessioning within the state of New York. It would not have been a simple matter to destroy a print for which the collector had received a tax deduction. Again, we want to work photographer.
Hilary: Deaccessioning is actually very, very difficult. It’s also a legal process. We have a code of practice, which sets out why we might do such a thing, and how we will do it and the approval levels go right up to trustee level. So, you know, in terms of deaccessioning anything, for a museum, it’s not a simple process, and it doesn’t happen too often.
Paul: Very well, I think we’ll start to bring it to a close, just some fantastic feedback. Daniel Schwartz from VII who’s listening in said, just great, thank you for these lectures coming from photography, consider the archive as important as the creation of the image and courage for your work in difficult times. So thank you, Daniel, for that great support. And then I think I’ll leave the last words to Harris Fogle. He says it’s a beautiful sunny day here with snow on the ground. So why is this the last session? Why not continue on? I’m really enjoying.
Alison: Harris, I have work to do.
Paul: I think we could listen to the two of you talk for much longer. But unfortunately, we don’t have time today. But I’m sure I will hope we will have you back on a different theme at some point in the future as part of VII Insider’s talks. So a really big thank you to both of you huge round of applause. We had over 150 people attending today, a lot of people coming back for all the sessions, I’ve seen a lot of familiar names. So really great and thank you so much.
Alison: Thanks to VII for setting this up. It’s always it’s always a pleasure to talk to Hillary. We don’t do it enough.
Hilary: It’s just been pure pleasure for me and if it’s been useful to anyone, then, you know, I’m just thrilled to bits. And you know, I hope that one day when borders go down, it’ll be a chance to actually see some of you face to face as opposed to a number. But yeah, it’s been an absolute pleasure to privilege, thank you VII Foundation, you’re doing a great job. And hopefully, we’ll be able to do something more together in the future.
Thank you very much. And do check on the VII Insider site. Lots of great content coming up, do consider subscribing because we’ve got some of it that is now premium level, but some really rich content that you can enjoy in the archives of past sessions but we’ve also got a lot on the freemium side as well for you to enjoy. And there’s a 50% discount for students as well on that. So we hope to see you at future sessions. But once again, thank you, particularly thank you to those of you who joined all three of the sessions. That’s really wonderful for us to see that that commitment. And as you know, it’s really valuable, obviously, because it was a fantastic series of talks, but really good for us to know that this format works well for you. So again, once once again, thank you very much, Alison and Hilary. Here’s a quick round of applause. Let’s just say this has been truly fabulous. What will I do next Thursday?
Alison: Make pictures!