Institutions and the Production of ‘Photographs’ | Elizabeth Edwards | Thursday, 20.10.2016

The Spectre of the Digital

I finished my last post thinking about shifting notions of ‘importance’ and ‘relevance’. This has, in part, been driven by digital technologies and the financial, socio-political and ethical pressures on institutions to give access to their collections, and in ways that connect to contemporary users. Likewise the massive and ever-increasing swirl of images in circulation is, of course, digitally-based, raising very real questions about the very nature of ‘photography’.
This position, as many commentators have noted, presents both opportunity and disruption in relation to museums and approaches to the photographs that inhabit them. Many of the new embodied presentations of ‘ways of seeing’ have been enabled by digital technologies that recreate historical presentational forms within the gallery space. This might take the form of enlivening photographic presentations from historical photographs, as at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, to saturating the space often through digital projection and manipulation (some photographs are animated – questionably to my mind), to the now ubiquitous page turner technologies which have made it possible to display album narratives and their composite materialities in the gallery space.
Digital photographic display. POLIN Museum Warsaw. Photos taken by the author
But digital environments also raise the challenges of new hierarchies, and new categories and their attendant impact on how histories of photography are both perceived and articulated. What are the effects on institutional assumptions and practices as they are translated into the digital environment? What does this do to history of photography and its articulation in public spaces? Of course I cannot attempt to answer such wide-ranging questions here, it would take a whole book, indeed several, in its own right. So this post merely raises a series of questions which emerge from my own experience working on photographic history in a digital world. But in this I want to come back to my central question: How do institutional thought landscapes construct ‘the photograph’ as a research object, or privilege some categories of objects as research objects and not others?
I too live in the digital world and use its tools and riches every day and continuously. Yet there lurks within me a concern as to what this is doing to scholarship on photography. The object-orientated democracies of ‘digital heritage’ are part of a global flow in information, and collections of photographs are increasingly managed to this end in ways that privilege mere content to the exclusion of other aspects of photographic dynamic. It is no coincidence that the material turn in photographic histories arrived at precisely the moment of digital expansion and the threat of the ‘dematerialisation’ of photographs. It was perhaps that flash of an awakening consciousness of history and memory that manifests itself in moments of danger that Walter Benjamin wrote about. 1Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Fontana, 1992),245–55. There were concerns about the loss of archival possibility of the material as photographs were reduced to pixelated, grey oblongs on a computer screen, with little attention to their materiality in the metadata development.
Yet despite the entrenched figurations of institutional thought landscapes, categories are unstable and increasingly so. What happens to categories of information when, for instance, catalogues are translated from analogue to digital forms? Such transformations are never neutral – they resonate with institutional practice and habitus. Ways of thinking about information, even in a digital age, emerge from epistemological processes that reach back centuries. Yet at the same time even allowing continuity of disciplinary thinking, the dialect subtly changes. Scholars such as Nina Lager Vestberg and Kelley Wilder have been usefully engaging with the implications of the digital for photographic history and its institutional apparatus. They have shown repeatedly that changes of medium, changes in language (shifts in metadata) are processes of translation, recontextualisation and refiguration that inflict or impose new meanings regardless of the discourse of neutrality or objectivity in which they are developed. 2See for instance Nina Lager Vestberg, “Ordering, Searching, Finding”, Journal of Visual Culture 12, 3 (2013), 472–89. Arguably digital environments demand sharper critical understanding of, and engagement with, the nature of the thought landscapes, and layers of historical disciplinary investments out of which these emerge, but which are all too often invisible to both creators and users.
However, more broadly there is a tendency for debates to drift into the instrumental and technical. It has been argued that digital history is about medium not content, comprising innovative ways of managing and presenting historical or heritage objects – that mantra of making collections accessible. What concerns me is that while ever more powerful tools for managing access to images and providing platforms for active aggregations of images emerge, the debate too often collapses into one of technology – of software systems and their algorithms. But what do these emerging tools do to our sense of the work we do as historians of photography? The discussions tend to retreat into a ‘how to’, rather than dealing with the implications. The essays in the recent issue of Visual Studies on visual archives in the digital age is a perfect example of the account of exciting technical possibilities of algorithms and tool development especially in relation to collections, but with almost no discussion about what this does to method, historiography and disciplinary habit. 3See also Gregg Mitman and Kelley Wilder, “Introduction”, in Documenting the World: Film Photography and the Scientific Record, ed. Greg Mitman and Kelley Wilder (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). So as a heuristic device, we need to decouple our thinking from a simple technological determinism which pervades the literature and ask some tough epistemological questions, which should guide us in how we use digital resources within the research, in the act of interpretation itself. 4Gerben Zaagsma, “On Digital History”, BMGN - Low Countries Historical Review 128, 4 (2013), 3–29.
What it is our “methodology for the infinite archive” and for dealing with the disorder of the digital with its assemblages, equivalencies, and boundlessness? 5William J. Turkel, Kevin Kee and Spencer Roberts, “A Method for Navigating the Infinite Archive”, in History in the Digital Age, ed. Toni Weller (London, New York: Routledge, 2012), 61–75; David Weinberger, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder (New York: Time Books, 2007). Very few discussions actually address what these new, powerful and seductive tools do not only in museums and histories but in the humanities more generally. If a major question for those of us working in the visual field has been 'what is it to write history (in the broadest sense) in a photographic and indeed filmic age', how much more urgent and crucial is the question 'what is it to write history in the digital age'? The endlessly rolling tsunami of photographs, whether on institutional databases or Flickr streams, not only feeds infinite numbers of images into the public domain but creates a collapse of data categories that I wrote about in my earlier posts.
I think this has serious implications for the way we think with photographs. Because within this, digital tools and their descriptors and search engines tend, understandably, to valorise content, rather than the opening up of categories and reading out of photographs. In terms of the new historiographies which I have discussed in earlier posts, this position threatens a kind of methodological regression or even shutdown. Further given that the material and affective engagement with photographs in the act of research became a constitutive part of the research itself, and there has been concern about the erasing of materiality within the digital. Some museums have addressed these concerns in their digital projects, supported by detailed attention to metadata, for instance (and there are many others) the Tibet Album project at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Travel Albums project at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. These projects demonstrate very different approaches, but both place material experience of the object, multiplicity and photographic narratives at their centre, and use digital platforms to open spaces of interrogation.
The Tibet Album (screenshot). Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford
If the management of photographs is entangled digitally, as I have noted, photographs are increasingly delivered digitally within gallery spaces. What does the everyday intimacy of the small screen, or the all-encompassing large screen do to photographs? They are very specific embodiments of consumption. In other words, what does the material intimacy or distance of the digital world do to our understanding of photographs? Does the uniformity of presentation have a levelling effect? As someone asked in the Journal of American History roundtable discussion on digital history, do we see, for instance, Holocaust or lynching photographs differently contained on the small screen? 6Daniel J. Cohen et al., “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History”, Journal of American History 95, 2 (2008), 452–91. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, nobody ventured an answer to this question in the discussion. But it is a crucial one, especially for the way in which photographs are presented in museums.
Further, the digital landscape offers us problems of scale and abundance – that disorder of the infinite. Underpinning debates about access there is perhaps that seductive, methodological lure that looking at more pictures, delivered for instance through museum platforms, will somehow help us to understand better. But as Franco Moretti has noted, no one has ever found a method by just looking at more things; it isn’t simply what we are doing already but just more of it. It has to be different. The categories have to be different. 7 Franco Moretti, Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 45.The digital both enlivens and haunts photographs and museums, and presents, therefore, intellectual problems and epistemologies which demand new methods and new categories of relations between the qualitative and quantitative. It has the potential to challenge the assumptions embedded within the thought landscapes which I have noted throughout my blog series. But at the same time I feel disquiet about the way in which we have, as yet, largely failed to contemplate the historical and methodological things we have done so far and how it might be different. 8See Roy Rosenzweig, Clio Wired: The Future of the Past in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). If I have raised many questions here, and offered few answers, my point is that museums need to ponder these questions as they make the photograph collections available online. What are they giving digital access to?