Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Digital Image Banks

Historical photographic collections in archives, libraries, and museums have been influenced by the two billion dollar a year global stock photography industry. The images, used in marketing, advertising, editorials, multimedia products, and websites, are filed at an agency that negotiates licensing fees on the photographer’s behalf in exchange for a percentage, or in some cases owns the images outright. Pricing is determined by size of audience or readership, how long the image is to be used, country or region where the images will be used, and whether royalties are due to the image creator or owner. The images are generic and decontextualized with flat, rich color and blank backgrounds, acting as “the wallpaper of consumer culture” (Frosh 2003, 1). Image banks “distort the nature of the imagery, treating them as if photography were a kind of universal Esperanto” (Ritchen 1999, 90). Cartier-Bresson notes that an image bank “will never match the work of an author. On one side is a machine: on the other is a living and sensitive being” (Dorfman 2002, 60).

Getty Images and Corbis, the two largest digital image banks, represent 70% of the images used in advertising and marketing (Frosh 2003). Getty Images was co-founded by Jonathan Klein and Mark Getty, grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty. Corbis is owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In some countries, Getty’s 25% market share would be considered illegal (Machin 2004). Machin (2004) writes that stock photography companies are changing visual perceptions of “the photograph as witness, as record of reality, to one which emphasizes photography as a symbolic system and the photograph as an element of layout design, rather than as an image which can stand on its own” (319). He continues:
We should be concerned about the effect of this increasingly stylized and predictable world on audience expectations of what the visual representation of the world should look like. We should be concerned about the fact that we no longer flinch when we see a posed, processed, stylized, colour-enhanced, National Geographic image of a woman and child taken from Getty and placed on a page in The Guardian for a documentary feature on the Kashmir conflict (335).
More worrisome for information professionals is the fact that image banks have also acquired historic photographic archives. Getty contains the Eastman Kodak Image Bank, the Hulton Picture archives, and the National Geographic image collection, among others (Ramamurthy 2009). Corbis absorbed the Sigmund Freud archives and the photo archives of UPI, the defunct news wire service (Aalto 2008; Dorfman 2002). It also bought the Bettmann Archive in 1995, which contains more than 16 million photographs, one of the world’s largest private depository of images. Batchen (2001) notes that many of the images owned by Corbis are historically significant:
Remember Malcolm X pointing out over his crowd of listeners, the airship Hindenburg exploding in the New Jersey sky, that naked Vietnamese child running toward us after being burned by napalm, Churchill flashing his V-for-victory sign, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Patty Hearst posing with her gun in front of the Symbionese Liberation Army banner, LBJ being sworn into office aboard Air Force One beside a blood-spattering Jackie? Corbis offers to lease us electronic versions of them all. It offers to sell us, in other words, the ability to reproduce our memories of our own culture, and therefore of ourselves (150).
Corbis has digitized only the previously top best-selling 225,000 images. The rest are stored in an Iron Mountain underground cold storage facility, inaccessible to researchers. Lister (2009) notes that, “In these processes of acquisition and selection a kind of digital ‘editing of history’ is at stake” (344). By neither digitizing images nor making them accessible for research, scholars are deprived from the cultural heritage of visual records.

Works Cited

Aalto, B. (2008). Industry in transition. Applied Arts 23(2), 10.

Batchen, G. (2001). Each wild idea: Writing, photography, history. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dorfman, J. (July/August 2002). Digital dangers: The new forces that threaten photojournalism. Columbia Journalism Review 60-63.

Frosh, P. (2003). The image factory: Consumer culture, photography and the visual content industry. New York: Berg.

Lister, M. (2009). Photography in the age of electronic imaging. In L. Wells (Ed.), Photography: A critical introduction. (pp. 311-344). London: Routledge.

Machin, D. (2004). Building the world’s visual language: The increasing global importance of image banks in corporate media. Visual Communication 3(3), 316-336.

Ramamurthy, A. (2009). Spectacles and illusions: Photography and commodity culture. In L. Wells (Ed.), Photography: A critical introduction. (pp. 205-256). London: Routledge.

Ritchen, F. (1999). In our own image: The coming revolution in photography. New York: Aperture.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Art of the Steal

Does a film continue to pop up in your Netflix recommendations, but you ignore it, only to find out later what you had been missing all that time? Nearing (hopefully) the end of a week long illness and bored out of my ever loving mind, I finally decided to watch The Art of the Steal. Wowza! While I've been trained in the library and archival sciences, I'm a novice to museum culture and am turned off by the elitism that exists in the art world. While the film took an obvious point of view (with many points I will research further), what struck me as an archivist was Barnes' will which had stipulations that seemed to be restrictive, unsustainable, and unrealistic. Is anti-elitism an elitism in itself? Watch the movie and decide for yourself.

Here's the film's synopsis:

An un-missable look at one of the art world's most fascinating controversies and a celebrated selection of the Toronto, New York and AFI Film Festivals, Don Argott's gripping documentary THE ART OF THE STEAL chronicles the long and dramatic struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation, a private collection of art valued at more than $25 billion.

In 1922, Dr. Albert C. Barnes formed a remarkable educational institution around his priceless collection of art, located just five miles outside of Philadelphia. Now, more than 50 years after Barnes' death, a powerful group of moneyed interests have gone to court for control of the art, and intend to bring it to a new museum in Philadelphia. Standing in their way is a group of Barnes' former students and his will, which contains strict instructions stating the Foundation should always be an educational institution, and that the paintings may never be removed. Will they succeed, or will a man's will be broken and one of America's greatest cultural monuments be destroyed?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cataloging Digital Documents

A recent story on "All Things Considered" discussed how information professionals describe digital documents. According to NPR:
This week, Maya Angelou turned over a large trove of personal papers to the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The collection includes many handwritten notes, drafts and letters. Nowadays, though, so much writing is done on computers rather than on paper; correspondence is done over email rather than through the postal service. To talk about how archivists deal with this shift toward digital documents, Michele Norris talks with Richard Oram, associate director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Listen.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Review of The Thread that Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders

The Thread that Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders

My review of The Thread that Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders by Pamela Train Leutz (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2009).
Published in College & Research Libraries, November 2010.

In The Thread That Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders, Pamela Train Leutz interviews 21 “independent bookbinders in private practice: general bookbinders, book conservators, book restorers, book artists, designer bookbinders, edition bookbinders, and box-makers,” exploring their training and their work (1). Preeminent representatives of the field include Catherine Burkhard, Jim Croft, Tim Ely, Gabrielle Fox, Peter Geraty, Don Glaister, Karen Hanmer, Craig Jensen, Scott Kellar, Daniel Kelm, Monique Lallier, Frank Lehmann, William Minter, Tini Miura, Eleanore Ramsey, Don Rash, Sol Rebora, Jan Sobota, Priscilla Spitler, and Cris Clair Takacs, with a special interview with internationally recognized conservator and “bookbinding father figure” Don Etherington (313). Leutz, a binder, book arts teacher, and college administrator, conducted interviews from 2004 to 2008 with bookbinders across the country, as well as overseas. She writes, “Each independent bookbinder has a ‘story’—significant, fascinating and unique, that revels the path that unfolded, leading them to bookbinding and sustaining them as they continue their craft” (1).

Viewing book workers as “mechanics, engineers, designers, craftspeople [requiring] imagination, creativity, intelligence, problem solving, and passion,” the book evolved out of Leutz’s curiosity about becoming a bookbinder in private practice (321). Her focus is not on the technical aspects of their craft, but on their character and perspectives; their training, skills, career paths; and the pros and cons of business. As the author states, she “wanted to know about the people themselves and the lives they led….I also wanted to see where they worked, to get a fuller sense of their lives—and to record my images and impressions as I interacted with these people and their work” (2). The interviews begin with an introduction of the binders and their qualifications, followed by a question and answer interview format. The book includes photographs of the studios, as well as the bookbinders themselves.

A common thread throughout the interviews is how to run your own business, and the book, through an assortment of voices, offers examples of a plethora of successful methods. The binders are diverse, employing a range of cultivated skills and experience. For example, conserving historic manuscripts requires knowledge about the chemistry of leather, wood, and paper, and the ornamentation of different eras. Bookbinding “requires the synergy of painting, drawing, and other fabrication techniques as well as a lot of referencing to arcane source material,” notes Tim Ely, who creates single-copy handmade books as art objects (47). The interviewees discovered specialized facets of bookbinding to explore their interests and abilities, ranging from edition binding to artist books, design binding, restoration, book repair, teaching, and conservation. Their training includes self-education, informal and formal apprenticeships, international training, workshops, graduate school, and often a combination of all of these. Despite their disparate backgrounds, the binders share an interest in lifelong learning and a passion for working with the highest standards as possible. Leutz notes, “Bookbinders are interconnected, almost like a family tree, through their training, work, collaboration, or friendships” (322).

Not surprisingly, the economic aspect of private practice is explored thoroughly, and this is the book’s strength. As binder and conservator Don Rash reveals, “What makes a good bookbinder doesn’t necessarily make a good businessperson” (197). In the final Reflections section, Leutz writes, “The majority of [the interviewees] voiced their frustration about feeling unable to charge a fair wage for their work. Unlike a plumber who charges per hour at the end of the job, a bookbinder is usually expected to give a firm price up front. The need to do extra work is often not discovered until a book is disassembled or the unique structure of a book is begun” (321). Frank Lehmann, a San Diego-based physicist-turned-binder, states, “If you are going to make a living off of bookbinding, you have to charge a decent hourly rate….I should be making a higher hourly rate than my car mechanic (who is very good). I have a lot more training than he does, and there are a lot fewer of me than there are of him....The craft of bookbinding is hurting itself by undervaluing its work” (37-38). Catherine Burkhard, a Dallas-based binder specializing in rebinding and restoring bibles, notes, “The money part of it is the bottom line. You can’t just set up shop with a needle and thread and a bonefolder; there is bookkeeping involved” (149). Throughout the interviews, advice about how to price work is given, a vital subject if hand bookbinding is to survive in contemporary society.

The Thread That Binds: Interviews with Private Practice Bookbinders is an excellent book for those considering entering the bookbinding field and into private practice, specifically, and serves as “a testament to the continued life of the artist/craftsman” (323). Due to its specialized subject, the book may have limited appeal to a general audience. However, the book elevates the status of those in private practice by documenting common pleasures and obstacles. The interviewees emphasized that with dedication, sacrifice, and luck, it is possible to make a living in the tentative world of private practice, “a life of hard work and perseverance [holding] the risk of uncertain finances” (1). Not surprisingly, unbounded copies of The Thread That Binds are also available; as of this writing, two exhibitions are scheduled to display innovative, one-of-a-kind bindings of the book.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Forgotten Bookmarks

Forgotten Bookmarks
The introduction for Forgotten Bookmarks states, "I work at a used and rare bookstore, and I buy books from people everday. These are the personal, funny, heartbreaking and weird thigns I find in those books." I love this site!