Image Capital | Estelle Blaschke | Wednesday, 10.03.2021

Customer Data, Plans, Bonds, Checks, Books, Journals …

The idea of replacing an object with its visual representation, thus creating mobile images that could move and be moved freely and easily, also became relevant in another field: the modernisation of administrative procedures and the expansion of bureaucracy in the course of the twentieth century. Numerous tools were designed to help handle the flow of information and the increased need for storage, most prominently, of course, the computer. Photography was also used here, in forms that are generally not regarded as photography at all: photocopying and microfilm.
Starting in the 1920s, microfilm – conceived as an information carrier and storage medium – was tested as a cost-effective means of reproduction, which, unlike the photocopier, stored original content on film in a microformat. Microfilm promised to contain all sorts of written, typed or graphic material, including customer and governmental data, patents, construction plans, cheques, bonds and inventories as well as books, journals and manuscripts. The microtechnology was first used in banks, then in the emerging oil, car and space industries, in newspaper publishing companies and in insurance and retail companies. The hope was to free offices and institutions of the sheer bulk constituted by the tons of documents on which they depended for the seamless functioning of their business. The copy was intended to reduce storage space by replacing paper. Alternatively, it was used as a backup for particularly sensitive and valuable information. Stored on film, the content was provided on demand. Here, the photograph functioned as a token for the physical object, a currency that could easily be accumulated and circulated. Again, this echoes not only Olivier Wendell Holmes but also Walter Benjamin, who had both compared photography to bank notes, albeit in very different contexts. 1Walter Benjamin, “Traumkitsch” [1925], in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980), 620–22, here: 620. Eastman Kodak, a key player in the field, promoted this kind of photography as functional photography. The company repeatedly took up these notions, using the slogan “Accounting by Photography” and claiming that the microfilming devices were as important to a well-functioning business as the billing machine. 2“Why the microfilmer is as important as the billing machine!” read a Recordak advertisement in Fortune Magazine (October 1961), 227. A similar idea seems to play out in an advertising shot from 1955 (fig. 1), showing a smiling woman, presumably a secretary, situated behind a heap of bundled cheques and holding a reel of film in her hand, suggesting the perfect solution for handling large volumes of material as efficiently as possible.
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Fig. 1: “All these checks in a single 100-foot roll of microfilm!” Advertising shot for Recordak, 1955. The Kodak Research Collection, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Library
During the second half of the twentieth century, the hope that analogue microtechnology would revolutionise the handling of documents gradually faded. In the competitive landscape of computers and other copying techniques – in particular, Xerox copying – microfilm and microfiche were relegated to the role of long-term storage. Nevertheless, it was far from becoming obsolete; it excelled precisely in those areas in which the source material needed to be reproduced as an image and not as text (e.g. graphics and literary papers with handwritten annotations). Increasingly referred to as micrographics, its use expanded in intelligence work, law enforcement (for fingerprint databases, in political polling, etc.), and, most importantly, in the field of engineering (fig. 2).
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Fig. 2: Photographic print of microfilmed construction plan, LOC 1934 / Mark Twain Memorial Bridge, Missouri Transportation Department. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
It is the so-called aperture card or optical punched card, produced by IBM, Kodak, 3M, and Xerox, among others, that can be regarded as the ideal form of the microtechnique prior to digitisation: a construction plan, for instance, is stored as an image and the accompanying data is provided on the punched card (fig. 3). The method merged the “capabilities of the computer with the equally remarkable capabilities of photography”. 3See Charles E. Harris, “Practical Application of Microfilm in Information Retrieval Systems”, in Proceedings of the American Management Association (Saranac Lake, NY: American Management Association, 1963), 15, available in series 5, box 91, folder 11, Kodak Historical Collection, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of Rochester Library. Photography retained every single detail and therefore provided rich visual information, while the metadata could be processed and retrieved by the machine.
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Fig. 3: Sample of aperture card or optical punch card. BMI Imaging Systems
This leads to another important thought: the use and exploitation of this visual information depended largely on functioning retrieval systems. With microfilm, it was easy to reproduce masses of data and documents on film rolls but hard to access a particular document and to locate a particular segment. The aperture card was developed to address precisely these difficulties: although it improved access, this method required investment in costly equipment produced by IBM and others, adding to the overall costs of machine readers (fig. 4).
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Fig. 4: Kodak advertising shot for the Miracode II System, a microfilm-retrieval system and reader, 1972. NMA Papers, Special Collection Research Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
The question of accessibility is indeed pivotal. In the business context or in any work situation, the value of an image as a resource is bound up with the question of access. If the requested item cannot be found quickly, it is of limited use, and if it cannot be found at all, it is worthless. Retrieval systems in all their forms (analogue card catalogues, registries or today’s databases and search engines) are an essential factor in the economic potential of an image. In turn, the economic potential of access to collections, archives and databases not only relies on the accumulation and long-term storage of the print, negatives, and digital files but is also reflected in and dependent upon the various tools and methods for managing and accessing an image collection.