Next week, Source will be launching an archive season that will continue until May. Putting this season together I have come across a number of online archives, some well known, some obscure, that contain a wealth of material I had never seen before. Although the emphasis of the season is on the physical collections that we have visited, in some ways the most significant recent development in photography archives is their increased availability via the web. In an ideal world we would be able both to visit archives and see them digitally (and we will be running a competition that connects finding archives online with visiting them in person, watch this space for details) but, to start us off, here are a few of the pictures I have seen and some reflections on how they are changed by appearing on the web.
One day in July 1853, three men boating in the Niagara River were caught by the current. When their boat overturned two of the men were immediately swept over the Falls to their deaths. The third man, Joseph Avery was stranded on a log which had jammed between two rocks. Avery clung on but all attempts made to reach him were frustrated and after eighteen hours he succumbed to the river. A daguerreotypist Platt D. Babbitt had a pitch by the Falls and recorded Avery's predicament. This image can now be seen on the Library of Congress website as part of their huge Prints & Photographs Online Catalogue alongside such collections as Roger Fenton's Crimean War Photographs and the negatives of the Farm Security Administration.
Anyone interested in photography, starting with a traditional telling of its history, can find a vast number of images online, hosted by some of the major photography institutions. This includes George Eastman House, The Center for Creative Photography and many others. There are, of course, companies whose business it is to make their archives available, starting with Getty images and Corbis but including all types of specialism. And this is before we get to the mammoth image collections on Flickr and other photo sharing sites. To say nothing of Google images.
This is another way of saying ‘There are a lot of photographs on the internet’ which you probably knew already. More intriguing is what has happened to these pictures because they are on the internet. Archives are a way of organising information so it is useful and meaningful. What is a picture of a statue embedded in a courtyard for? Or, how did it come about in the first place? It might qualify as ‘news’ by being unusual, but then why no people? It makes more sense as part of a collection of photographs of earthquakes (in this case the San Francisco Earthquake 1906) which is what you would expect the U.S. Geological Survey to record.
There must be thousands of these smaller archives of photographs with a specific function that becomes enigmatic when they are floated free in the wider internet, like the wonderful Public Monument and Sculpture Association database of – often amateurish – photographs of public sculpture. This is also typical of council archives which include many pictures whose original purpose is now inscrutable like this man in an overgrown field (The original photograph of which can be examined at Buckinghamshire County Hall). There is a kind of logic being played out here that, once a picture has entered the archive, it submits to the larger purpose of the collection it inhabits. This larger purpose is amorphous and unpredictable because who can say what pictures will mean to us in the future? So the archive is obliged to preserve itself and, as time passes, the photographs become further removed from the reason for which they were first made.
One of the surprising consequences of this is that public archives not only keep but even digitize photographs that would have been considered mistakes by the people that made them. Double exposures, scratched and obscured images can all be found in the digital collections of English Heritage and the National Library of Ireland. Ironically, archives, which were formed to tie down the meaning of pictures, can now be explored for the utterly arbitrary and accidental beauty they preserve.