Friday, November 25, 2016

Reconfigured Archive – Entry 5

To reiterate, my interest in focusing on the descriptions for archival photographic material stems from the fact that this language plays a critical role in the photographs visibility and use in an archive, not to mention its status as a factual document. As a result, I want the final presentation of this project to produce a tension between the written description and the actual image. To create this tension, I will divorce the written description from the photograph, so that it forces viewers of my archive to imagine the associated photograph. In this regard, I am simulating the experience of searching for photographs in an archival institute, where you are required to make initial judgements on a particular image based upon the supplied description.

Provided here are a few of examples of "archival" description that will be included in the final project.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Reconfigured Archive – Entry 4

Part of the requirement for this assignment is to add twenty images to the thirty that were provided. Initially, I thought I would do this by looking in my collection or searching Google, selecting images and writing descriptions. However, when I was exploring the institutional archives online I realized it would be much more interesting to select existing archival photographs and their associated description. In this sense, the final fifty images would be composed of both real archival images and their accompanying descriptions and the provided images with my constructed descriptions.

In coming up with description for the thirty photographs provided, I found it necessary to try to determine the geographic location and date for each image. Fortunately, digital images carry their original date stamp. However this is set by the cameras internal clock, so if that happens to be wrong, your date will be wrong. If the image happened to be taken by a smartphone, the date is almost guaranteed to be correct, since time is automatically kept in check via satellites. Interestingly, discovering location information turned out to be heavily dependant on the level of text included within the image. Of course some images included recognizable geographic or architectural features, but most required an internet search of a street name or business, which could then be verified by cross referencing the image with Google Street View or other images online.

Determining the geographic location of this image is relatively easy since it is possible to cross reference the signage and store names online. 

Images with very little contextual information proved to be the most difficult (such as the image below). In this case—as would likely be the case for an archivist—the description was kept to a minimum.

Determining the exact location of this image is next to impossible, given that there are no specific signifiers to trace.
Next step: produce the documents that will house these descriptions.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Reconfigured Archive – Entry 3

“…the medium of writing—whose presence in a photo archive was, according to Allan Sekula, a sign of a lack of trust in photography’s mimetic powers—cannot necessarily be trusted any more than the photographs themselves.” Spieker, Sven, “1970–2000, Archive, Database, Photography,” The Big Archive: art from bureaucracy, Boston: MIT Press (2008), 140
To begin the process of applying language to the thirty disparate images I have to work with, I figured it was necessary to learn more about the way in which institutional archives describe photographs. This first led me to a few texts outlining complicated classification rules and taxonomies that should be maintained within archives, such as this manual on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS, for short). Determining rather quickly that it was not my responsibility to understand the complexities of proper archival description, I looked to existing archival descriptions for answers. 

Combing through the Library of Congress, the Library and Archives of Canada, the Archives of Ontario and the City of Toronto Archives, I began to see trends in the way archival photographs were described. In a general sense the descriptions are didactic, providing a barebones description of what is the primary subject within the image (of course, in some cases the subject is subjective, and that is where things can get interesting). Location and date are the next details provided, locating the image both temporally and geographically. If there is no location information available, the description will sometimes include [location unknown] or simply be ignored. Dates are commonly included, and when uncertain they seem to be estimated: [1894?] or [1940–45]. In some cases, descriptions are very complex as seen in this example from the Library of Congress below.

Retired major-league baseball star Lance Berkman and members of his family, in his canoe and others ahead, set off on a family canoe trip on the Rio Grande River through Santa Elena Canyon, deep in Big Bend National Park in Brewster County, Texas. Mexico is to the left, the United States to the right. 2014-03-17
In other cases, description may be entirely minimal, as in the following example from the Library and Archives of Canada.

Matador [graphic material]. 1973

An important point to make here is that the descriptions I am referring to are the top-level image description, sometimes listed as "titles." Opening the record (either online or in the institution) will often reveal further levels of information, including details about the fonds, the author, alternate descriptions and other relevant info. However, I am focusing on the top-level description since it is the first text encountered in the archive and the text that is used to determine whether or not to look at the record. In other words, when searching an archive it is this language that holds the power over the photograph's visibility or its use. This is especially true in many cases where the photograph is only visible after requesting to view it at the institution, a decision that is based solely off of the archival description. Here it is possible to start to understand the power of language in relation to the photographic archive.