Application Presentation

Application Presentation

Photo Collection


I chose this funny picture (01) to start: it is the first camera ever made (photographed by the second one ever made), at least this is what is says on the website I got it. I found it funny because of the size and because, somehow, the machine and its materiality stand out more than people.

One point that I found very interesting in the readings is the fact that, since the beginning of photography, the issue of archive was part of its production.

There’s an example on John Tagg’s text, which is the stereograph (02), [this double picture that you need to use a specific “viewer”, called the stereoscope, to see the picture.]

The stereograph had a peak of popularity around 1859 and Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American physician, foresaw that this proliferation would create big collections that would need a form of classification and organization in libraries.

Also, it created the necessity of a piece of furniture that would make the storage of them possible, in an organized way – thus the creation of the file cabinet (03), which is this furniture on our left, with the drawer open.



Like the stereograph, the same situation happened with photography since its beginning. Bertillon (04), French director of the identification bureau of the Paris prefecture of Police, was the inventor of the first system for cataloging and retrieving of photographic records (05).

He had to organize the pictures of criminals and suspects in a way that would be easy to work and access, becoming easy to identify people and connect them to see if they had similar expressions and characteristics.

Besides organizing the photos, he also developed a system for criminal identification (06), based on photos. He used what we called today the mug shot along with detailed pictures of parts of the face, based in five primary measurements, such as the head length, the length of the middle finger, the length of the left foot.

I found interesting how he was able to create two systems of classification, one of people (07) (suspects) and one of photos and documents about them. Here is a “class” (08) he gave to explain his system for criminal identification.



Another interesting aspect about these systems of photo classification is the fact that, many times, the method of classification create what Elizabeth Edwards says as a passive resource, in which photos are assembled regardless of their deep meaning, just like a neutral document.

For instance, the creation of the modern vertical file (09) in 1892, like this one, made possible the organization of photos using the decimal system of classification.

But the use of this system and placement made photo collection more related to the machinery of the archive (10) than to the machinery of the camera. Again, as Foucault is cited in Tagg’s text, the space of the file is the space of a disciplinary machine.



Jumping from this date to the 1970s, but somehow still related to the commandment aspect of the archive (Foucault), I would like to talk a little bit about the NYPL Photography Archive (11), here is the home page of the now digital collection.

And this is the second point I would like to discuss about the readings.

This archive was created in 1977 by the librarian Julia van Haaften. This photography archive was “discovered” by her when she, somehow, looked into the library collection in a different way, seeing another possible organization / order, in an archive where a system of organization was not “promoting” photography. NYPL Photo Archive (12)

It’s also around this time, a little bit early, that photography started to be used in artistic works, such as Robert Rauschenberg paintings with photos (13).

So, there is a change of status in the photography work. Related to the art work, but especially to the archival process.

Photography was switching from being only a document related to another form or file, a document that would give information, to an art piece, which its aesthetic force. It also started promoting the photographer (the artist, the author). NYPL Photo Archive (14)

[ MoMA Collection already had a department of photography since 1940, which also helped this inclusion of “photography as a form of artistic expression on an equal footing with the other arts” (Thomas Weski, cited in Anne Sophie Springer text) ]


Which goes back to Elizabeth Edwards’ text when she talks about the possibility of the photo archive to become an active resource, with historical and creative force. NYPL Photo – Weegee (15). Citing her text on page 55

Weegge, who was a criminal photographer – something very related to information and objective documentation that, pretty obviously gained more meaning when viewed in a photo collection.

However, Douglas Crimp’s text says that though photo status changed, their way of being archived are still very related to the traditional matrix of curating: organized by genre and chronology, based on its acquisition or other “archiving” aspects. The Grain of the Present – exhibition of ten – (16)

So again, the space of the file (now, the photo) is the space of a disciplinary machine and I wonder which ways of classification can break this.

And if the photo acquired this new meaning, the aesthetic aspect of it (cited in Douglas Crimp’s text), wouldn’t be possible to think in new forms of archiving that would be less technical or information-based, and more “synesthetic”?



These questions led me to remember a photo collection I saw at the New Museum’s exhibition last year called “The Keeper” (17)

It was a collection created by Wilson A. Bentley (American) (18) in the end of the nineteenth century and called the Snow Crystal Collection (19). Starting in 1885, he photographed and collected information about snowflakes during 47 years of his life. He was able to create an apparatus that consisted of a combination of camera and microscope.

Here is one of the photos (photo snowflake – 20)

I’m using this example because I found very interesting how the original motivation was very scientific (21), thus a documentation of nature, and, even though he was fascinated by the beauty of each snowflake (22), he didn’t consider himself an artist.

But I believe that because of the powerful photo collection he created, his work went to museum (photo newspaper 23) and gained somehow an artistic status, related to the aesthetic experience. Read second paragraph of the newspaper.

His collection was acquired by the Buffalo Museum of Science in 1947 (he was already dead). The digital library was created in 2004 by Dr. June Abbas and graduate students from the University at Buffalo’s Department of Library and Information Science.

I also find this photo collection interesting because each snowflake is unique (24) and very ephemeral, so I it’s also maybe a good metaphor of the archiving process and the photo collection as cognitive artefacts in their production and reception.

Photos 25 and 26 – more snowflakes





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