A few weeks ago the New York Public Library announced that it had expanded its public domain image cache by nearly 200,000 images. When I was teaching the History of Photography, I remember how challenging it could be to find high-quality images for my lectures, so this is really exciting on many fronts.
Among the NYPL’s new digital and public holdings and the infinite digital holdings of the Library of Congress are several projects that I’ve been interested in for a while, and that I used to teach. In my History of Photo classes, I really enjoyed discussing lesser-known projects by famous photographers, so expect to see some of that here in the very near future.
The thing about studying and teaching the history of photography that is much different than studying other media in art history is the massive archive that can be left by even one photographer. When I was in graduate school and working on my thesis, which involved selecting a core group of photos to study from Eugene Atget’s oeuvre of more than 8,000 photos, I remember being really regretful that I hadn’t latched on to studying one painting, as was certainly possible! I suppose deriving meaning from a huge mass of images is part of what attracted me to studying Atget’s work.
In my classes, when I taught Eugene Atget, could I show my students one photo out of the 8,000 that he made and say “This is it – this one photograph sums up and stands for every photo he made, and his entire career and motives can be understood by studying this one example.” Definitely not. The photo historian has to look at a lot of photographs before they can start to hazard an attempt at interpreting what they mean.
As an instructor, whenever we talked about any famous photographer, I tried to present to the class what else they did during their career—what were their lesser-known projects. Every photographer has them. No photographer can be defined by one picture, no matter how iconic it is. Looking at other projects that they are less known for help us understand not only their work, but also the world at the time, and their audience and patrons.
I can say the words “Migrant Mother” and I guarantee you know exactly what picture I’m talking about. As far as iconic photographs go, that one has to be near the top. How did that photograph come to be the one that stands in for the thousands taken by the photographers of the FSA? Something I’m interested in, personally, is how the black and white FSA images shaped *my* imagined vision of life during the Dustbowl & Great Depression (did you know there are FSA photographers who shot color photos?). We know Lewis Hine for his photos of child factory workers (example above), but his photos of immigrants at Ellis Island are less known—what do those photographs tell us about their subjects? Ansel Adams is probably one of the most famous photographers in the world, and his landscapes have defined the perfect photographic print for decades. How do his photos of internees at Manzanar fit into his career?
When I do academic photo research, I try to answer the question “How are we to understand this photo” but to answer that we aways need to ask more questions. In the most basic sense we have to ask how can meaning be derived from images? Especially when the photo historian has thousands of examples to choose from? Is each photograph important? Do they all *mean something*? Do they all *mean the same thing*? Can *you* learn how to interpret the latent meaning of photographs? And a question unique to photographs as opposed to other artistic media, is seeing believing?
At the most basic level, the task of the photo historian is to ask how do photographs in general help us understand the past—a world we can see but cannot experience?