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Category: book review

Archival Photographs as Art: A Part of Larry Sultan’s Legacy

EvidenceLarry Sultan was famed as both a photographer and archives researcher. He passed away on Sunday, December 13th, 2009 and his obituary in the New York Times describes his use of archival photographs as “harnessing found photographs for the purposes of art while using them as a way to examine the society that produced them”. The 59 photographs, selected in collaboration with Mike Mandel from a broad assortment of corporate and government archives, were originally displayed and published as a collection named ‘Evidence’ in 1977. A reprint of Evidence was published in 2004, including a new scholarly essay and additional images not in the original.

The Stephen Wirtz Gallery has a number of images from the 2004 exhibition available online and features this great summary of the original project:

Sultan and Mandel created the series Evidence with documentary photographs mined from image banks of government institutions, corporations, scientific research facilities, and police departments. An NEA grant gave the artists a persuasive edge in gaining access these resources, and images were selected for their mysterious and perplexing subject matter. The series was presented in an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1977, and simultaneously collected in the book Evidence, which is recognized among the most important publications in the history of photography. Removed from their original contexts and repositioned without references to their sources, these images challenged the viewer to examine the conceptual concern of identifying meaning and authorship in the creation and consideration of the art photograph.

I used WorldCat to find the closest copy of Evidence and happily found a copy of the 1977 imprint at the Art Library at the University of Maryland, College Park. It had been a long time since I had looked at photographs on paper and bound in a book rather than on a computer monitor. I love the idea of re-purposing of archival image – but I was also fascinated to realize that the word ‘archive’ does not appear anywhere in the publication. Even the description above mentions ‘image banks’, not ‘archives’.

The organizations thanked at the start of the book included major corporations, U.S. federal agencies and a long list of highway, fire and police departments. Sultan and Mandel seemed to focus their research efforts in California and Washington, DC – perhaps due to a need to limit their travel. While today one would likely still need to travel to many archives to find images like those used in Evidence, there are so many images available online (at least for preview). How would someone approach a project like this now?

It is so easy to create a slide show or website featuring images from repositories from around the world. Even the images that have not been digitized have a decent chance of at least being mentioned in an online finding aid. The recently introduced Flickr Galleries make it easy to select up to 18 images from across Flickr – like my November Flickr Commons Photos of the Month Gallery. Also, much of the online culture of reuse encourages giving proper attribution for materials.

Part of Evidence’s power is the extraction of the images from their original context and their unexplained juxtaposition with one another. Finding and harvesting an image online would make it much harder to entirely strip that context away to leave the raw image behind. I can imagine a web-wide hunt for an image’s origin. While that might be fun (maybe an archives answer to the DARPA Network Challlenge?), it would not be the same as a sleek hardback book with 59 stark, unlabeled, black-and-white photos that sits on the shelf of an art library.

I find it poetic that Evidence’s photos are a perfect example of a ‘secondary value’ of archival records, even though the images were literally evidential records necessary for the carrying out of daily business. That said, I don’t believe that ‘possibly useful to future artists’ is a typical reason given for retaining and preserving archival records. We are just lucky that artists have been (and will almost certainly continue to be) innovative in their hunt for inspiration.

If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to sit quiety with a copy of Evidence. The images include landscapes, explosions, deep pits, plants, rocks, people, planes, machinery, wires and a car on fire. My laundry list of contents cannot begin to do the images justice – but I hope that they might wet your appetite.

This combination of gallery exhibition and book has inspired me to wonder about other similar projects that specifically leverage archival images for artistic purposes. Please list any that you are aware of in the comments (be they in gallery exhibitions or published volumes).

Book Review: Dreaming in Code (a book about why software is hard)

Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software
(or “A book about why software is hard”) by Scott Rosenberg

Before I dive into my review of this book – I have to come clean. I must admit that I have lived and breathed the world of software development for years. I have, in fact, dreamt in code. That is NOT to say that I was programming in my dream, rather that the logic of the dream itself was rooted in the logic of the programming language I was learning at the time (they didn’t call it Oracle Bootcamp for nothing).

With that out of the way I can say that I loved this book. This book was so good that I somehow managed to read it cover to cover while taking two graduate school courses and working full time. Looking back, I am not sure when I managed to fit in all 416 pages of it (ok, there are some appendices and such at the end that I merely skimmed).

Rosenberg reports on the creation of an open source software tool named Chandler. He got permission to report on the project much as an embedded journalist does for a military unit. He went to meetings. He interviewed team members. He documented the ups and downs and real-world challenges of building a complex software tool based on a vision.

If you have even a shred of interest in the software systems that are generating records that archivists will need to preserve in the future – read this book. It is well written – and it might just scare you. If there is that much chaos in the creation of these software systems (and such frequent failure in the process), what does that mean for the archivist charged with the preservation of the data locked up inside these systems?

I have written about some of this before (see Understanding Born Digital Records: Journalists and Archivists with Parallel Challenges), but it stands repeating: If you think preserving records originating from standardized packages of off-the-shelf software is hard, then please consider that really understanding the meaning of all the data (and business rules surrounding its creation) in custom built software systems is harder still by a factor of 10 (or a 100).

It is interesting for me to feel so pessimistic about finding (or rebuilding) appropriate contextual information for electronic records. I am usually such an optimist. I suspect it is a case of knowing too much for my own good. I also think that so many attempts at preservation of archival electronic records are in their earliest stages – perhaps in that phase in which you think you have all the pieces of the puzzle. I am sure there are others who have gotten further down the path only to discover that their map to the data does not bear any resemblance to the actual records they find themselves in charge of describing and arranging. I know that in some cases everything is fine. The records being accessioned are well documented and thoroughly understood.

My fear is that in many cases we won’t know that we don’t have all the pieces we need to decipher the data until many years down the road leads me to an even darker place. While I may sound alarmist, I don’t think I am overstating the situation. This comes from my first hand experience in working with large custom built databases. Often (back in my life as a software consultant) I would be assigned to fix or add on to a program I had not written myself. This often feels like trying to crawl into someone else’s brain.

Imagine being told you must finish a 20 page paper tonight – but you don’t get to start from scratch and you have no access to the original author. You are provided a theoretically almost complete 18 page paper and piles of books with scraps of paper stuck in them. The citations are only partly done. The original assignment leaves room for original ideas – so you must discern the topic chosen by the original author by reading the paper itself. You decide that writing from scratch is foolish – but are then faced with figuring out what the person who originally was writing this was trying to say. You find 1/2 finished sentences here and there. It seems clear they meant to add entire paragraphs in some sections. The final thorn in your side is being forced to write in a voice that matches that of the original author – one that is likely odd sounding and awkward for you. About halfway through the evening you start wishing you had started from scratch – but now it is too late to start over, you just have to get it done.

So back to the archivist tasked with ensuring that future generations can make use of the electronic records in their care. The challenges are great. This sort of thing is hard even when you have the people who wrote the code sitting next to you available to answer questions and a working program with which to experiment. It just makes my head hurt to imagine piecing together the meaning of data in custom built databases long after the working software and programmers are well beyond reach.

Does this sound interesting or scary or relevant to your world? Dreaming in Code is really a great read. The people are interesting. The issues are interesting. The author does a good job of explaining the inner workings of the software world by following one real world example and grounding it in the landscape of the history of software creation. And he manages to include great analogies to explain things to those looking in curiously from outside of the software world. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Book Review: Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History

Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History consists mainly of 11 case studies of geographic information systems being applied to the study of history. It includes a nice sprinkling of full color maps and images and a 20 page glossary of GIS terms. Each case study includes a list of articles and other resources for further reading.

The book begins with an introduction by the editor, Anne Kelly Knowles. This chapter explains the basics of using GIS to study history, as well as giving an overview of how the book is organized.

The meat of the book are the case studies covering the following topics:

I suspect that different audiences will take very different ideas away from this book. I was for looking for information about GIS and historical records (this is another book found during my mad hunt for information on the appraisal and preservation of GIS records) and found a bit of related information to add to my research. I think this book will be of interest to those who fall in any of the following categories:

  • Archivists curious about how GIS might enhance access to and understanding of the records under their care
  • Historians interested in understanding how GIS can be used to approach historical research in new ways
  • History buffs who love reading a good story (complete with pictures)
  • Map aficionados curious about new and different kinds of information that can be portrayed with GIS

I especially loved the maps and other images. I am a bit particular when it comes to the quality of graphics – but this book comes through with bright colors and clear images. The unusual square book format (measuring 9″x9″) gave those who arranged the layout lots of room to work – and they took full advantage of the space.

No matter if you plan to read the case studies for the history being brought to life or are looking for “how-tos” as you tackle your own GIS-History project – this book deserves some attention.